'Dream' Day Not Today
By Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
Martin Luther King III came to NIH on Jan. 16 for a little give and take. One day after stepping into shoes vacated involuntarily by his father nearly 30 years ago, the brand new leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) gave a stirring speech to mark what would have been the elder civil rights leader's 69th birthday. Thanks in large measure to NIH's equal employment opportunity officers, he took with him a clearer image of the world's premier medical research institution and several promises to help SCLC promote NIH's health mission in minority communities.
Coalition Building a Top Priority
"As director of SCLC," King said at a pre-speech briefing with members of NIH's EEO community, "I intend to build more coalitions with Latino, Hispanic, and Asian communities, and -- particularly with our Jewish friends -- rebuild relationships that have been strained in recent years. Clearly we have to mobilize our troops, utilize lobbying efforts more effectively and make use of communication technology such as the Internet to get us ready for the 21st century."
Martin Luther King III
Conceding that "those who are against what we represent" already have a head start in getting their message across, King said concepts of diversity and affirmative action have for the most part been "marketed as a wedge issue to divide us."
When King asked about civil rights challenges facing NIH's EEO officers, he was apprised frankly. He was told that a common perception among minority employees here is that diversity in hiring and promotion has been placed indefinitely on the "back burner" among NIH priorities, and that less than 1 percent of the agency's 1,200 tenured scientists are Black. King heard that although NIH has for several years enjoyed favorable budget increases, agency funds devoted to administrative concerns -- areas such as outreach, recruitment and retention of minority employees -- have remained static or been decreased.
Noting aggressive efforts on these issues by the director of NIDDK, Minority Program Manager and EEO Officer Rose Pruitt said her institute is -- and has been for some time -- engaged in initiatives with such organizations as the National Medical Association (which has as its members African Americans), to take the benefits of research results to the minority community. In addition, half of NIH's tenured Black scientists work at NIDDK.
The point was also made that ultimately, the onus is on the leadership of the institutes to bring on tenure-track scientists and see that they have resources.
Noting a recent success story [NIH research found that strokes in children with sickle cell disease can be significantly reduced with routine blood transfusions], Naomi Churchill, director of NIH's Office of Equal Opportunity, said individual employees can be catalysts for changing the climate. "The problem is less a matter of diversity training," she observed, "than it is a matter of deep-rooted personal commitment."
NINDS EEO Officer Levon Parker, who moderated the 45-minute preliminary session, said that by developing and funding a wide variety of science training programs, his institute and others are committed to "feeding the pipeline of young qualified minority students" who are considering medical research as a career.
"It is very frustrating to see issues go unaddressed and there are some major obstacles to overcome," King counseled the small group, "but it is incumbent upon all of us involved in civil rights to continue to raise these concerns to the forefront." He also suggested "a still not fully tapped" resource for spreading NIH's message to communities of color: "One way to reach Black folks is through the pastors of their churches," he said. "The church is still a significant communication mechanism in the minority community."
Focus Turns to 'Debilitating Diseases'
Following the briefing, King addressed a standing-room-only Masur Auditorium assembly. Still far more dream than reality, his father's vision "set a perfect standard for an imperfect world" -- a day when equal rights are achieved for all citizens, he remarked. "For too many of this nation's leading organizations -- lending institutions, employment offices, clinics and hospitals -- that day is not today. I challenge you all here to examine your own [efforts]...You must evaluate if that day is today at NIH."
Noting that there has been little progress to celebrate, King drew a deliberate distinction between merely observing MLK Day and celebrating it. "We celebrated in 1983 when President Reagan signed the bill" enacting the federal holiday, he said, and "in 1986 when it was recognized by the nation for the first time. Can we celebrate today that the most resourceful nation in the world is still battling the same three debilitating diseases -- poverty, racism and violence -- that it was fighting 30 years ago?"
After sharing recollections of the elder King's visit in 1961 to "a small, 97 percent white male college in New England," NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus, introducing the speaker, said he was inspired by the "transforming effect Dr. King had on that school and on an entire society." Varmus also said he admired the mettle of the younger King, who consented to speak at NIH only 1 day after assuming the leadership of the SCLC.
Cofounded in 1957 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and several other ministers of the South, SCLC has stood at the forefront of the civil rights movement since its formation. Its director since 1977, Rev. Joseph Lowery, recently retired to make way for the group's unanimously elected successor, MLK III. King took office on Jan. 15, the anniversary of his father's birthday.
Taking the podium, King joked that he was feeling the effects of a heavy travel schedule -- from SCLC headquarters in Atlanta to Monterey, Calif., back to Atlanta, down to Wilmington, N.C., out to Minneapolis, and finally to Washington, D.C. -- in barely a week's time, but said he was honored to be asked to address NIH. Noting that SCLC is committed to promoting the betterment of people of all kinds -- especially the poor, disadvantaged and sick -- he said his father's dream won't be completely fulfilled "until medical research is a higher priority than weapons research."
The MLK commemorative program, which also featured the talents of the Cardozo High School Choir, the Aurora Dance Company, and NIH'ers Cliff Moore and Diane Wax, who led the litany, was cofunded by several NIH components.
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