MIT's 30th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King was highlighted by the spirited commentary of columnist Julianne Malveaux and inspiring reflections by two MIT students.
Julianne Malveaux (Ph.D. 1980) evoked waves of applause from most of the 500 people in Morss Hall with sharp commentary targeting national icons who she said were contributing to "the dismantling of the dream" of Dr. King.
The theme of the Feb. 5 event was "Rhetoric or Reality: Civil Rights Under Siege" and Malveaux took aim at some of her favorite targets: the University of Michigan court case (in which two unsuccessful student applicants challenged the university's use of race as a factor in the admissions process), and President George W. Bush.
"The litigants in [the Michigan] case thought they were entitled to those [admission] slots. It was their misplaced sense of entitlement that brought about this case," she said. "We need to look at who is funding those who would dismantle the dream."
In commentary aimed at Bush, Malveaux said, "How do you spell weapons of mass destruction? O-I-L! How else do you spell weapons of mass destruction? Halliburton!
"And when it comes to education, when you consider that 40 of the 50 states are experiencing economic stress, that means public schools suffer. In public higher education, people are being shut out by the policies of this administration," Malveaux said.
Malveaux, an economist, said that in many of his statements, Dr. King spoke like an economist. "He asked 'Who owns the oil?' and wondered who it is that pays for water when three-fourths of the Earth is covered with it," she said.
She also took issue with the country's economic inequities. "American capitalism treats poor people cruelly, without dignity. We think of panhandlers as crazy. Well, poverty and homelessness can make you crazy."
Last year, "more than 400 million credit cards were sent out, yet there are only 100 million people in this country eligible to use one," Malveaux added.
"Dr. King talked about the economy and access to the economy. We used to talk about being in the back of the bus," she said. "Today the real question is, do you have bus fare? Moreover, the question is, do you own the bus? Do you zone the bus? Do you have a parts company for the bus? Do you import bus parts? It's all about access to the economy."
President Vest lauded the efforts on behalf of minorities and women on the MIT campus, primarily at the undergraduate level. But he also said he regretted that efforts toward racial diversity among graduate students and within the MIT faculty have not been as successful.
Those efforts, he said, have been "made tougher by the turn of events in the past few years" such as "challenges to universities' ability and right to select their own students according to the criteria that best support their educational mission; challenges to our programs of outreach to younger students; and international security concerns that translate into barriers for students, faculty and other scholars who wish to come here from other countries."
Vest, who announced two months ago his decision to step down as MIT president, closed his remarks by thanking the MIT community "for 14 years of inspiration, challenge and hope."
Two MIT students addressed the theme of the day--civil rights under siege--with accounts of their own experiences. Nicholas Pearce, a freshman in chemical engineering, spoke proudly of being an alumnus of the MITE2S program. "It was a positive experience and it gave me a quick snapshot of what I could achieve. But the battle against civil rights is unrelenting. Affirmative action gets the least amount of legislative assistance," he said.
Aeronautics and astronautics graduate student Bruce Webster, a Navajo descendant and Air Force veteran, described the Native American experience from a personal standpoint. "My language could not be taught to me as my parents were relocated by the government and not allowed to practice our culture or honor our heritage. I did not learn those things until I was an adult," he said. "Jews had Hitler, but my people had Kit Carson, the U.S. cavalry and the Bureau of Indian Affairs."
In her later remarks, Malveaux said to Webster, "Your speech is a searing commentary about our times. You touched my soul with your story."
The program also included recognition of the 2003-04 Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professors by Provost Robert A. Brown and recognition by Chancellor Phillip L. Clay of the Martin Luther King Leadership Award winners--Phillip Thompson, Blanche Staton, LaRuth McAfee and Salvatore Molica (see MIT Tech Talk, Jan. 28).
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 11, 2004.