Angela Davis: “We need to renew our commitments to struggle against racism”

Angela Davis: “We need to renew our commitments to struggle against racism”

MIT News

Sally Kornbluth, Angela Davis, Melissa Nobles

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.

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.