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King Calls for New Action on Racism

By Muayyad M. Qubbaj

"Now is the time to act," declared Coretta Scott King as she spoke in Kresge last Friday. "Reject apathy ... alcohol ... and drug abuse. Take a pro-active approach against racism."

King, the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joined students and faculty in MIT's 20th annual celebration of the life and work of Rev. King.

King remembered the civil rights leaders of the past and called for the younger generation to study and learn "why they died and what they died for." In her speech, she attacked racism and anti-semitism, and she challenged society to rise above its problems through non-violence.

"It took me twenty years to get here, but I'm here and I'm proud to be here," King began.

Racial and economic injustice are "inseparable twins," King said, quoting her husband and underlining the significance of the celebration's theme, "The Movement for Economic and Social Justice: 1994 and Beyond."

King said that economic empowerment is the key to greater racial harmony today, reminding the audience that Rev. King was assassinated in a labor union organizing campaign questioning the "good of sitting on an integrated counter if you can't afford the meal."

Oppose violence and hatred

King condemned racism as a trap that ensnares its victims in poverty, urban decay, and crime. Racism foster fears and doubts, preventing schools from meeting their potential and dividing those who would normally share a common goal, she said.

Anti-semitism is "as reprehensible as racism," King said. Society is a vibrant mosaic of all cultures, rather than a melting pot of races, that can survive only if the required multicultural unity is present, she said. She saw this unity as an "essential tool for personal, political and economic empowerment."

King then challenged the students in the audience to "rise up and lead the the movement for economic and social justice." She asked them not to undermine their power to instigate social change and gave the termination of the Vietnam War as an example of the outcomes of such courageous intervention.

King requested public schools to employ experimental curricula that instill the values of Martin Luther King Jr.: honesty, tolerance to diversity, and standing up for what is right.

"Kids promise to adopt non-violence," she said. "Non-violence helps us all feel that we can do something. ... You begin to love yourself and others"

She also predicted that applying such programs to law enforcement agencies and corrective institutions might minimize crime and violence, and they would "precipitate less violence" in the long run.

King implored students to move away from their own and their governments' "material-centered values to people-centered values." She dared them to embrace her vision of "children being safe and secure ... being able to enjoy as much education as they wished," and to pursue her dream of a "new national community."

As she concluded her address, King called upon the audience to meet the challenge that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized in 1968: "The distinct desire to be first, the desire that runs the gambit of life." She asked the audience "to recognize that he who shall be greatest is your servant," and she demanded that they strive to be that servant.

Vest proposes change

"There is some truth to claims of a fragmenting environment," said President Charles M. Vest about racial diversity at MIT before introducing King.

"As one moves across the undergraduate, the graduate, and the faculty bodies, one can see an increasingly distorted reflection of the America we aspire to achieve," Vest said.

Expressing his belief that "something can be done," Vest announced the appointment of a presidential Committee on Campus Race Relations that would strive to "enhance an environment of mutual respect."

He also announced the establishment of a professorship that would carry the name of Robert R. Taylor, MIT's first African American graduate student.

King commended Vest for his "welcome innovations" at MIT and said that she looks forward to a report on the accomplishments of Vest's committee by next year's ceremonies.

However, King added, "You haven't done enough yet, and you're not alone in that." She said that MIT can further become a leader in nurturing a healthy form of diversity that would benefit the entire community by "preparing them to live in a multi-cultural society."

Speeches, music open ceremonies

The day's events began at at 9:45 a.m. with speeches from the Black Student Union, MIT Hillel, the Interfraternity Council, and Institute administrative staff. The morning's events also featured a powerful flute recital by Linda L. Hughes, administrative and financial staff assistant in the graduate school office.

We need to "bridge the gaps between the different cultures of the world and to encompass the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," said Arnold R. Henderson Jr., assistant dean for Student Assistance Services, agreeing with the speakers.

After the speeches, the crowd marched four-abreast -- as King had done in the 1960s -- from Lobby 7 to Kresge Auditorium.

"To move beyond 1994, we must look behind 1994," said Andrew C. Humphrey, president of the Black Graduate Student Association, welcoming the audience.

In the short speeches that followed, an MIT/Wellesley Upward Bound student and two MIT students conveyed their concerns regarding the interracial tensions that continue to plague society.

The students expressed their indebtedness to Dr. King for "who he was, what he has done, and what he continues to do for all the black children in America." Moreover, they all saw the urgent need to face up to the challenges of today's world, challenges that seem very similar to those of the past.