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Shirley Jackson speaks during King celebration

By Earl C. Yen

Blacks and other minorities have advanced in many areas of American society over the last 25 years, but America still has far to go in eliminating racism, according to Shirley A. Jackson '68, the first black woman to earn a doctoral degree from MIT.

Jackson's Jan. 15 speech in Kresge Auditorium highlighted a day-long ceremony at MIT honoring the birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., slain by an assassin's bullet 18 years ago. The ceremony was part of the first national celebration of King's birthday.

Blacks have advanced to higher levels than ever before in many fields, including state and local government, technology and business, Jackson explained.

But the nation has fallen short of Martin Luther King's "yardstick" of an equal society, she said. Minorities represent 19 percent of the total American workforce but only eight percent of all officials and managers, according to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, she noted. Black unemployment also remains high, Jackson said.

"The black middle class has grown and become more wealthy," she explained, while "one of two black children live in poverty today."

MIT administrators and faculty have "an implied social contract with minority colleagues and students" to provide them with "real academic and career opportunities," Jackson said.

The composition of the MIT faculty in part reflects the tendency of blacks to avoid careers in academia, she said. Only 14 of MIT's 1100 faculty members are black, although nine of these are tenured, according to Jackson. The Institute has experienced somewhat more success in hiring minority administrators, she said.

Jackson defended the merits of affirmative action programs. "People often forget that affirmative action is a new phenomenon. It gives blacks a chance to perform on an equal basis."

South Africa: time is running out

"The issue of race in South Africa has obvious parallels with events in US history," she asserted. "The protests of the 1960s lead to a breakdown of the obvious vestiges of enslavement and discrimination.

"But the whites and blacks are becoming more entrenched in their positions in South Africa," she observed. "The violence is escalating and time is running out."

King's belief in non-violent protest was based on the belief that it is wrong to use immoral means to pursue moral ends, she said.

MIT's investments in US companies operating in South Africa are "a moral means for immoral ends," Jackson claimed.

Jackson advises today's students

Students today ought to be aware of the changes taking place in American society, Jackson stressed.

"I challenge you [students] to take advantage of the opportunity for continued change in this country," Jackson said. "Our society is becoming more pluralistic, so a strong sense of self is important."

Today's immigrants are coming from the Third World rather than Europe and are changing the face of the nation, she observed.

"It's necessary to understand the fostering of a common culture as well as the different cultures in this country," she continued. "Those who lack skills will be effectively disenfranchised because they cannot participate fully in national life. You have a responsibility to fully educate yourself for life."

Jackson, who co-founded the Black Students' Union at MIT, spoke of her later years at MIT as a "difficult but exhilarating period."

She and other black students in 1968 presented a plan to the MIT administration for increasing black enrollment. The plan included the increased recruitment of minorities, better financial aid opportunities, and the establishment of Project Interphase, a summer program to help newly admitted students make a successful transition to MIT.

She described the black students' discussions with the administrators as "often heated, sometimes nasty." Nevertheless, black enrollment in 1969 jumped to 57 students, compared to an average of five in the previous years.

After receiving her PhD from MIT, Jackson became a research associate at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. She later worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. A member of the MIT Corporation from 1975 to 1985, Jackson was recently elected vice president of the MIT Alumni Association.

Jackson, currently a research physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories, is also the first black woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in physics.