'Many Dreams...One America'
By Carla Garnett
Photos: Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
Personal testimony, impassioned speeches, spirited music and interpretive sign language. NIH's recent 1999 Celebration of the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had it all, perhaps as it should be to honor a man who saw and promoted the strength in diversity and fairness for all.
EEOC Vice Chair Paul Igasaki delivers the keynote address at NIH's 1999 King celebration.
"Martin Luther King's philosophy of nonviolence had one simple element his belief that one divine, loving presence binds all life together," said Naomi Churchill-Earp, NIDDK assistant director for management, in opening remarks. "His work included contact with garbage collectors as well as wealthy doctors, lawyers and other benefactors. Dr. King's quest to eliminate social injustice was based on his belief that whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly...Clearly his vision has transcended time and place."
Themed "Many Dreams, Many Cultures, One America," the program was originally scheduled for King's actual birthday Jan. 15 but an ice storm that day postponed the proceedings to the middle of Black History Month, Feb. 22. The event was designed to reflect the diversity of NIH's workforce, which according to some estimates, includes employees who speak more than 100 languages and dialects, but who are nevertheless interdependent and unified in the NIH mission of optimum health for all Americans.
"I would like to reiterate the commitment of Dr. Varmus, the NIH director, and my own personal commitment to Dr. King's dream," remarked NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein. "We are dedicated to making NIH a truly inclusive workplace with a diverse workforce at all levels and in all occupations. It is our longstanding goal to promote the management of diversity in a way that ensures that the capability and the full potential of every single member of the NIH community are respected and are realized."
Keynote speaker Paul Igasaki, vice chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said MLK day has special significance for him. He is a Japanese American whose family felt the pain of racism firsthand during World War II, when because of their race and nationality they were suspected of disloyalty and forced from their homes into prison camps in desolate parts of the United States.
"Part of the reason that the holiday we observe today is so meaningful for me is that the work of the EEOC and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that created us are the direct result of Dr. King's work for an America that lives up to its promise of fairness and equality," he said. "Our mission goes to the heart of the American identity, the heart of constitutional promises that have never been fulfilled. I can think of nothing so uniquely American as our agency's mission to pursue equality of opportunity."
Igasaki, the first Asian American to serve in his post at EEOC, said his family's experiences and his father's explanation of King's work led him to pursue the career in civil rights that ultimately brought him to speak at NIH.
"Dr. King gave his life so that all Americans could live in a society that embraces our rich racial and cultural diversity," he said. "He sought a society and a government that rejected hate and bigotry. It is in this context that I'd like to share with you a few thoughts on Dr. King's legacy, how far we've traveled to overcome pernicious discrimination and the difficult work that remains to be done, work that needs the same level of creative energy and tenacity that NIH has shown in its efforts fighting disease and its causes."
Reminding the audience of the recent hate crimes in Wyoming and Texas, Igasaki said discrimination will probably not end in his lifetime or in his young daughter's. He said the EEOC receives more than 80,000 charges of discrimination and 25,000 complaints by federal employees every year, but that Americans should not despair or be frustrated by these bleak statistics. He said that although there have been much-publicized challenges to affirmative action laws in several states, the playing field for jobs, advancement in careers and higher education in this country still remains uneven.
"We must realize that the important journey is not over," Igasaki concluded, citing hope in policies spurred by groundwork laid by King and the civil rights movement that have desegregated schools, recognized the equal rights of women, reversed discriminatory immigration laws and helped give birth to the Americans with Disabilities Act. "It is important for us to concentrate on what we can still do...Discrimination is an ongoing battle. We must make aggressive use of our greatest resource our diversity."
Two other speakers Dr. Mary Brown, a professor at Prince George's Community College, and NIDCR director Dr. Harold Slavkin gave short presentations on "What MLK and Diversity Mean to Me."
"There will never be another Martin Luther King it seems to be that way with those who are truly great," Brown said, noting that several civil rights organizations and movements such as the NAACP predated by many years King's birth. "So why so much recognition for Dr. King? Perhaps it is because he succeeded in pulling all of us together...In his direct-action protests and demonstrations, Dr. King included the young, the old, Blacks, whites, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, common laborers and professionals. This diversity in his alliances created a powerful image on the nightly news that could not be easily dismissed by television viewers as just 'a Black thing.'"
In his turn, Slavkin recounted a personal epiphany he had during a speech King delivered at the University of Southern California following the 1965 Watts racial riots in Los Angeles. In the speech, King suggested that everyone accept a share of responsibility for the violence, destruction and loss of life that resulted from the riots.
"There was hope for realized dreams of equality if each of us shared a piece of the responsibility," Slavkin said he remembers thinking at that moment. "This is what I think diversity is in its fullest and richest expression shared responsibility, at the individual level, at the institutional level, and at the community level."
In between speakers, the audience was entertained with musical performances by Brianna Eberling, a student in Woodson High School's deaf and hard of hearing program in Fairfax, Va., and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir of Washington, D.C.
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