2023 49th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration
“Let us uphold the flame for fairness & justice. There’s a certain kind of fire that must not be extinguished.”
Feminist and Writer
MLK Leadership Awardees
Senior Lecturer of Finance, Sloan
Electrical Engineering & Computer Science major, minoring in Music
Associate Director, Affinity Communities at MIT
Senior Engineer, National Security Analysis Department, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
“Let us uphold the flame for fairness & justice. There’s a certain kind of fire that must not be extinguished.”
"I've Been to the Mountaintop," 3 April 1968
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final speech, delivered in support of striking sanitation workers at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) in Memphis, Tennessee, less than 24 hours before his assassination.
Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy in his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. [laughter] It's always good to have your closest friend and associate say something good about you. And Ralph is the best friend that I have in the world. I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" - I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom I'm named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg.
But I wouldn't stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
But I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy." [applause] Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding - something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee - the cry is always the same - "We want to be free."
And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence! [applause] That is where we are today.
And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis.
I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn't itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world.
And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God's children. And that we don't have to live like we are forced to live.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we've got to keep attention on that. That's always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn't get around to that.
Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be - and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That's the issue. And we've got to say to the nation: we know how it's coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory!
We aren't going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don't know what to do, I've seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around." Bull Connor next would say, "Turn the fire hoses on." And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn't know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn't relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn't stop us.
And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we'd go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we'd just go on singing, "Over my head I see freedom in the air." And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, "Take them off," and they did; and we would just go on in the paddy wagon singing, "We Shall Overcome." And every now and then we'd get in the jail, and we'd see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn't adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.
Now we've got to go on in Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be with us when we go out Monday. Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we're going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, "Be true to what you said on paper." [applause] If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren't going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
We need all of you. And you know what's beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It's a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones and whenever injustice is around, he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, "When God speaks, who can but prophesy?" Again, with Amos, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor."
And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years; he's been to jail for struggling; he's been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he's still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. [applause] Rev. Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank all of them. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren't concerned about anything but themselves. And I'm always happy to see a relevant ministry.
It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. [applause] This is what we have to do.
Now the other thing we'll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively - that means all of us together - collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That's power right there, if we know how to pool it.
We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles. We don't need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, "God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you."
And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy - what is the other bread? - Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart's bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. [applause] We are choosing these companies because they haven't been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.
But not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank-we want a "bank-in" movement in Memphis. So go by the savings and loan association. I'm not asking you something we don't do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We're telling you to follow what we're doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an "insurance-in."
Now these are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We've got to see it through. [applause] And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school, be there. [applause] Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administering first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting - an ecclesiastical gathering - and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.
But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1,200 miles, or rather 1,200 feet, above sea level.
And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2,200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?" Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, you drown in your own blood - that's the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheelchair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states, and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what the letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School." She said, "While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."
And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1961 when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent! [applause] If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see the community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.
And they were telling me, now it doesn't matter now. It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. [applause] And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
MIT News Spotlight (15 January 2023) illustration by José-Luis Olivares, based on a photograph by Rowland Scherman taken during the 1963 "I Have a Dream” speech. Background photographs show MLK Day marches on the MIT campus, ranging from 1968 to 2016, and are courtesy of the MIT Museum.
Inaugural MLK Vendors Market
The first annual MLK Vendor’s Market offered a chance to support local black-owned businesses. Lotions, candles, crystals, clothing, and more were on sale, and light refreshments were served. February 10, 2023, 4:30-6:30pm, Bush Room, MIT 10-110.
The MLK-Inspired Art and Performance Contest invited MIT community members to honor the legacy of Dr. King with visual, literary, and performance arts inspired by his ideals. The works embodied his mission, highlighted the year’s theme of upholding the flame for fairness and justice, or showed us hope for the future with joy. This year’s winning entries — from sophomore Kaelyn Dunnell, sophomore Victory Yinka-Banjo, and senior Kidist Adamu — were displayed February 6-10, 2023 in MIT Lobby 10.
BSU-BGSA Joint Statement
Corban Swain Photography- SEE GALLERY
10 February 2023
On February 8th at 11:40am during the 49th annual MLK Luncheon event, 40 Black students mobilized and walked into the room in Walker Memorial.
Black students did not mobilize to the MLK Brunch to see Angela Davis. They did not enter the room because they were dying to brunch with administration and did not have tickets.
Black students showed up to the event to demonstrate our resolve in ensuring our experiences are not sanitized for the comfort of others.
Nicole called for us to “light the fire” of justice with the knowledge that we students must be able to determine what that means for us. We responded in unison with “light the fire” because we know that by standing together we can create a just and safe community for all, which everyone can be proud to be a part of.
Right now, Black people on campus deal with nearly constant affronts like everyday racial aggressions, traumatizing encounters with campus police, and years-long deferrals on meaningful action to address our needs. The vandalism that occurred with the Black Hack banner is both symbolic and symptomatic of larger issues of anti-Blackness within the institution.
As Nicole put it in her speech, “there is a certain kind of fire that must not be extinguished.” We will make sure our voices are heard and will not stop until our community’s needs are seen and addressed.
We will continue to light that fire.
MIT BSU & BGSA
MIT President Sally Kornbluth watched as keynote speaker Angela Davis greeted MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles during MIT's 49th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, 8 February 2023. Photo: Jake Belcher
Keynote speaker at MIT’s annual luncheon honoring Martin Luther King Jr. delivers powerful message about the need for change.
David L. Chandler | MIT News Office
February 9, 2023
MIT’s 49th annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took place Wednesday before an overflow crowd at Morss Hall and featured activist and author Angela Y. Davis as its keynote speaker. The celebration luncheon was the lead event in a week of activities honoring the civil rights leader, and its theme was: “Let us uphold the flame for fairness and justice. There’s a certain kind of fire that must not be extinguished.”
In her address, Davis said, “Each year we witness ever more compelling evidence of why we should not only celebrate Martin Luther King — and, I should add, the radical movement for which he served as spokesperson — but also why we need to renew our commitments to struggle against racism, materialism, and militarism.”
“This is a time to reflect deeply on the long struggle for liberation that has already spanned multiple centuries,” she said. “It is also a time to reflect on how we might accelerate that struggle in order to guarantee that those who have been denied entrance into the circle of freedom might not only be admitted, but by recognizing their struggles, their collective multigenerational vision, it might be possible to reimagine future worlds — radical democratic futures for all beings who inhabit this planet.”
Davis offered two questions for the audience to ponder. First, how has it been possible for Black people and their allies to remain committed, over a vast number of generations, to this struggle for freedom? And “on the flip side, how has racism persisted for so long? How has it become naturalized so that its proponents sometimes believe that what we refer to as racism is actually the natural destiny of the world?”
Davis said “this is a historical moment when we are called upon to comprehend the structural, systemic, institutional character of racism. And the counterrevolutionaries are screaming that such an analysis of racism is meaningless wokeness, that such an analysis is designed to cause white children feel bad about themselves.”
“Education is integrally related to social change,” she said. “We’re on the verge of substantial shifts, paradigm shifts, in the way people think about race and racism.” Those who want to resist those shifts are frantically trying to turn back the clock, she said, adding that 36 states have enacted laws that impede education about race and racism.
“The intensity of the conservative responses to a new understanding of racism as structural and systemic and institutional rather than as individual character defects has especially manifested itself in the vicious campaigns against critical race theory,” she said. But, quoting King, she said, “Justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” What is needed, Davis said, is deep structural change.
DiOnetta Jones Crayton, MIT’s associate dean for undergraduate education and director of the Office of Minority Education, gave the invocation at the luncheon event, saying that in these times of pain and grief over events that are all too familiar, as the Bible says, there is a time to lament, and a time to celebrate. Today, she said, “we actively and purposefully choose to celebrate” the life, legacy, and impact of King’s life.
Quoting King, she said, “Let us uphold the flame of fairness and justice. There is a certain kind of fire that must not be extinguished.” There are immense challenges still upon us, she said, “and we know that it is only through the Lord’s great mercies and our collective efforts that we can and we will choose love and not hate.”
Steven Branch, the associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Career Development Office, described working at a company where he was the only Black employee, and his feeling of being othered because the anniversary of King’s birthday was not a recognized holiday there. He expressed this in a staff meeting one day, which led the CEO to declare it a company holiday moving forward. Branch said the experience showed him the value of standing up publicly for one’s beliefs. He added that the CEO ended up becoming a mentor who helped him land his position at MIT.
Jaleesa Trapp, a PhD student in the Media Lab, spoke of an important mentor in her life, the teacher who welcomed her to the Computer Clubhouse afterschool program in middle school and encouraged Trapp to see herself as an engineer, designer, or scientist. Considering that this teacher “had the power to transform her life by imparting knowledge,” Trapp said, “imagine what we as MIT could do.”
Junior and chemistry major Myles Noel, acting as master of ceremonies, noted the history of the venue for the annual event, Walker Memorial (Building 50), which is named for MIT’s third president Francis Walker. Walker “helped justify racist U.S. policies for removing Native Americans, First Nations, and Indigenous people from these lands. We recognize that we stand on stolen lands,” and must offer our respects to those who were here before, Noel said.
Nicole Harris, a junior and biological engineering major who helped establish Juniper, a dedicated living space on campus for Black women, said that though she had chosen to attend MIT specifically because of its strong and welcoming Black community, she still found struggles to deal with here. She cited an occurrence just this week when a banner placed by Black student leaders in Lobby 7 was defaced, its statements crossed out and written over.
“There is a sentiment in this community that pushes back on progress,” she said. “We can drive change, we can drive this sentiment out of our community, but not without first acknowledging that it is still here. We will not be silenced. The experiences of Black students will not be revised. Dismissal of our lived realities is a tool of oppression,” she said, urging her fellow students to continue to “light the fire.”
Acknowledging this incident, newly arrived MIT President Sally Kornbluth said, “I’m too new to offer my serious diagnoses or solutions” for those who come from groups that have been marginalized and sometimes feel unwelcome. But, she said, based on her 17 years in academic leadership, she could outline the philosophy she’s tried to live by, condensing it into three overarching themes.
First, she said, “our community can only succeed if we operate with the understanding that everyone at MIT is here because they deserve to be here. Every one of us is a full member of this community, and every member of this community is valued as a human being and valued for what they can contribute to the mission.”
The second theme has to do with the mission of an institution of higher education, she said, where “we have an obligation, both to our own members and to the society we serve, to educate, and that has to mean seizing every opportunity, from our classrooms to our public conversations, to make sure everyone in this community is familiar with and alert to the history and presence of racial injustice in America.”
Third, she said, is the need to learn from the numbers but recognize that numbers don’t tell the whole story. The numbers on MIT’s Diversity Dashboard show that there is still much progress to be made, she said, but there is even more to that picture: “I don’t want to just hire Black faculty, I want them to retire here eventually,” she said. “I don’t want them to feel like guests, I want them to know this is their home. I want them telling their friends that they should come to MIT too, and that’s going to take a lot more than simply increasing the numbers.” She added, “I know that an approach like this can help drive real progress — I’ve seen it in action, and it’s the spirit that I intend to bring to my work here.”
“Fixing these deep, enduring problems cannot be only, or even primarily, the responsibility of the people who are injured the most,” Kornbluth added. Citing the feeling of warmth and community in the room, she also observed a shadow of exhaustion and frustration over the slow response to relentless acts of injustice and violence against Black people. “I wish I could erase that shadow and relieve that exhaustion,” she said. “But I want you to know that I see it, and I believe that one of my main responsibilities as a leader here at MIT is to make sure that you don’t have to tend the fire for greater justice and understanding on your own. I will be there with you.”
The luncheon celebration was one of a series of events this week celebrating King’s life and honoring members of the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program. This year’s members of that program are Daniel Auguste, Javit Drake, Eunice Ferreira, Wasalu “Lupe Fiasco” Jaco, Moriba Jah, Louis Massiah, Brian Nord, and Brandon Agbunu.
This year’s MLK leadership award winners were honored at a separate ceremony on Tuesday. The honorees were undergraduate Aria Kydd, graduate student Jensen Johnson, staff member Moana Bentin, faculty member Frank Ahimaz, and alumna Mareena Robinson-Snowden PhD ’17. The week’s programming also included an art exhibition and a vendor’s market supporting local Black-owned businesses.