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Higginbotham Discusses Race Relations, GOP Contract


Sharon N. Young-Pong--The Tech
Leo Osgood, director of minority education, President Charles M. Vest, A. Leon Higginbothm Jr., and Becky Vest participate in the traditional march from Lobby 7 to Kresge Auditorium on Friday.

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Editor in Chief

As a student at Purdue University in the early 1940s, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. lived in an unheated dormitory attic with 12 other black students. When he protested to the university's president about the harsh conditions, he was told that "the law doesn't require us to have you."

Exasperated, Higginbotham later transferred to Antioch College, earned a law degree from Yale University, and went on to become a distinguished jurist and legal scholar.

Higginbotham related his experience at Purdue in the keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Friday. In a talk entitled "Trumpet of Conscience: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Contract with America" he spoke of the Republican party's Contract with America and how it might affect race relations.

This year marked the 21st MIT celebration of the life and work of King, who was killed 27 years ago this April. Higginbotham also spoke at the celebration 13 years ago.

First leadership awards bestowed

The events began in Lobby 7 with speeches about King's life by representatives of the Interfraternity Council, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), Hillel, La Union Chicana por Aztlan, the Black Students' Union, and Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and Friends.

At noon, President Charles M. Vest led the traditional march from Lobby 7 to Kresge Auditorium.

This year's celebration marked the inaugural presentation of the MLK Leadership Awards to two individuals and three organizations. The first recipient, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering Robert W. Mann, was honored for his landmark work in biomedical engineering.

Cynthia R. McIntyre PhD '90 received the award for organizing a national conference for black physics students while a graduate student at MIT. "The conference was a resounding success, and has since become an annual event, held at different universities around the country," Vest said.

The awards for organizations went to AISES, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers for their joint sponsorship of a career fair.

The three groups "show by example what can be done when different groups work together for common goals," Vest said.

Vest introduced Higginbotham as "a true friend to MIT," referring to his work on behalf of the Institute in the Overlap case, where several universities were accused of violating antitrust laws by meeting each spring to discuss financial aid packages for students.

Just months after retiring, Higginbotham joined MIT's attorneys and argued before his former court on behalf of the Philadelphia school system, the Urban League of Philadelphia, and a coalition of bar associations of Hispanic, Black, and Asian American attorneys in the Philadelphia area.

"These groups are the counsel for the interests of those bright and very needy students who would be most adversely affected" if need-blind admissions were eliminated, Higginbotham argued. Speaking at MIT was a chance "for me to say to a school that has treated students better than [Purdue] treated me, that You are on the right track.' "

Higginbotham framed his address as a message from King to Rep. Newt Gingrich (RGa.) about the latter's Contract with America. The contract "may very well be one of the most tragic hopes and potential cruelties" in American politics, Higginbotham told the audience in Kresge Auditorium.

Higginbotham told Gingrich, "It is within your power to make our nation more fair than it has been in decades, or to make it more mean."

"What scared me so much" about the contract, Higginbotham said, was that "not once do you say that you want to eradicate racial discrimination. Not once do you say that you want to eradicate gender discrimination."

"Today, many African-Americans and other persons of good will are hoping that your Contract with America will not constitute a denial of justice to the weak, the poor, the powerless, and minorities," Higginbotham wrote in December.