Opinion guest column

MLK Jr. Gala Action & Remarks

The BSU and BGSA led the C4P in action to ask: are we at MIT truly respecting the legacy of MLK?

On Saturday, February 17th, the MIT Coalition For Palestine (C4P), an alliance of 14 student and staff/faculty groups on campus, coordinated two actions at the 50th annual gala celebrating and honoring the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This event, hosted by MIT’s president Sally Kornbluth, aims to celebrate the life and legacy of the inspiring civil rights activist and revolutionary whose words echo throughout our history books. On Saturday, the Black Student Union (BSU) and Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) led the C4P in action to ask a very pointed question: are we at MIT truly respecting the legacy of MLK?

Prior to the start of the event, community members gathered at a rally outside the Boston Cambridge Marriott hotel, the venue of the gala, to lodge their protest against MIT administration's recent suspension of the student group Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA), which has been actively campaigning on campus and locally to end the genocide of the Palestinian people being perpetrated by the Israeli government and military. On the night of Sunday, Feb. 11th, Israel resumed its carpet bombing campaign in Rafah, an act of aggression which even United States spokespeople have said would not receive American support.  These sudden events prompted the CAA to lead an emergency rally on Monday, 2/12 in response to the escalation of bombing in Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians have been forced to set up makeshift refugee shelters to flee the Israeli aggression. Despite attempts at open communication with administrators to ensure safety, the CAA was subsequently suspended as a student organization, and 13 of its student leaders were temporarily banned from all leadership positions on campus, even those without any relation to CAA activities. Additionally, these student leaders face disciplinary charges which could include “permanent suspension,” putting their international members at risk of deportation. President Kornbluth communicated the details of the group suspension in a public video despite an institutional policy of confidentiality  in disciplinary cases.

In response to this blatant suppression, the BSU and BGSA led the coalition in a rally on Saturday, Feb 17th. Addressing over 150 community members as well as the gala attendees entering the hotel, the speakers noted the deep irony in having MIT administrators participate in an event honoring MLK, whose legacy of protest, direct action, and civil disobedience is perhaps best exemplified at MIT through the Coalition. The gala itself, organized by staff, faculty, and students who form a crucial support network for Black students and community members at MIT, represents an inspiring effort to honor the rich history of Black liberation; however, the C4P made it clear that they find the attendance of MIT administrators who have enforced suppressive free speech policies to be an absolute disrespect to the memory, legacy, and ongoing struggle of this movement. To confront these administrators with their contradictions, student attendees of the gala participated in a resolute display of solidarity and protest, voicing their support for the CAA and making the following demands:

  1. Reinstate the CAA and retract threats to student organizers.

  2. Remove the suppressive free-speech policies (e.g., “time, place, and manner” restrictions) which have been used to suppress protest on campus.

  3. Cut research and corporate ties with the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Inside the gala, a disruption occurred during the end of remarks given by Austin Cole, the graduate student speaker for the event and a Masters student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and Sloan School of Management. Austin called on the attendees to rise from their seats in honor of Dr. King’s legacy and words. He asked that they continue to stay standing if they agreed with additional statements, which connected Dr. King’s struggle with the genocide in Gaza and unjust reprisals on MIT’s campus. Most of the crowd stood throughout, though notable MIT administrators sat down once the CAA was referenced. As people stood, students handed out pamphlets detailing the hypocrisy of the administration and outlining the C4P’s demands. Finally, dozens of students and MIT community members joined Austin on stage in front of the crowd, linking arms while reciting a joint statement. A transcript of this powerful speech, including the disruption, can be found below [editorial comments in brackets].


Good evening, my name is Austin Cole, and I’m a grad student in urban planning and business here at MIT. I am here by the grace of God, the will of my mother, and the love of my beautiful partner.

I believe part of developing both intelligence and character is the process of crafting our place in this world. This process is fundamentally about how we relate to others, to the earth, to the moral universe, and to ourselves. In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This quote has always resonated, but it feels especially pertinent today when we are in another extended battle for the soul of this country and campus. 

Dr. King’s idea of relationship and mutuality came up for me while I was a college summer intern at the state department.  I remember sitting in a conference room watching as the news flipped between the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the so-called migrant crisis at the southern border. As a Black man in the US studying political economy in Latin America, I felt the connections of the physical violence of a state murder of an unarmed Black teenager with the structural violence of our foreign policy and immigration system. Those connections might not have solidified had I not offered to my team of Latin American experts that maybe we should think about solutions to the migrant crisis in the context of the US destabilizing those countries from the 50s until today. As you can imagine, I was met with silence and blank stares and after a moment the conversation changed. This was an early career reminder that the institutions that depend on upholding structural inequalities are not going to provide the solutions. How could I honestly be in relation with the masses at our border or the crowds in Ferguson while upholding such institutional norms? 

It was in Dr. King’s understanding of mutuality and relationship that late last year I suggested to senior MIT administrators that a reason the institution struggles to confront racism is because it is intertwined with a racist, violent, and unfortunately profitable military project. Like most universities, MIT remains comfortably enmeshed within the three evils of US society that Dr. King decried in a 1967 speech: racism, excessive materialism, and militarism. Yet, the suggestion that MIT might start to divorce itself from militarism, just like my 2014 comment at the state department, was met with dismissal.

Such dismissals only forestall a more just future, and because of this it is incumbent upon me and others to struggle inside and especially outside of these institutions of extreme intelligence and questionable character. I feel called to oppose the complicity of this institution and others in the genocide in Gaza, the ongoing Nakba, the criminalization of our youth, and deadly militarism at home and abroad. While I am called to oppose this loudly, we all have different roles to play in this long struggle of societal reconstruction. If we don’t see a role for ourselves in advancing this reconstruction, then we consign ourselves to complicity in genocides and injustices because we are benefiting from their violence. While this is difficult, to truly honor the legacy of Dr. King, some things must be done because they are right despite, as he said, being quote, "Neither safe nor politic nor popular."

In closing, Dr. King told us, and young people of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee showed us, that we need to be “creatively maladjusted” to the institutions that direct or are complicit in the injustices we fight, or else we perpetuate their injustices ourselves. For me this has meant organizing on and outside of this campus and I have found a beloved community in doing so.

I hope that from bottom up, this spirit of justice will emerge from all corners of this institute because thus far we’ve failed to heed the warning of Dr. King that, “When scientific power outruns moral power we end up with guided missiles and misguided men”. At minimum, I hope that each of us considers what it means to honor Dr. King and to carry the torch of justice while within this institution or others. As for me and mine, we choose to fight and build collectively. Like Dr. King, we choose to be among those creatively maladjusted to injustice wherever it may surface. I hope that you will join us.

And to show that you will not be alone, and in the name of education being both intelligence and character, I would ask everyone who is able to to please rise if you believe in the dream of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s and his words that 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere', if you cannot stand please raise your glass

[audience stood]

Now please stay standing if you believe that standing against injustice, in whatever role you can do so in, aligns with your moral character and values

[during this time, students began handing out pamphlets shown in Figure 1]

Please stay standing if you believe in Dr. King’s legacy that supporting or remaining neutral to the genocide and destruction of a people's land qualifies as an injustice

Please stay standing if you believe that it is reasonable for people of conscience – students/staff/faculty/community members –  to fight for the beloved community by protesting against injustice and institutional complicity without being threatened with suspension, expulsion, or firing

[MIT administrators sat]

I thank everyone who’s standing, and I invite all of you to come up to the front and stand together.

[students, faculty, and staff began walking to the front of the stage]  

For those of you who have sat down or lowered your glasses, I ask you to grapple with why you did so: is it fear, worry, uncertainty, disagreement? These are understandable feelings, and can be overcome by solidarity, bravery, moral clarity, and a willingness to learn. I encourage all of us to think about what we are willing to stand for and in this time of a genocide in which this institution is directly complicit, what are we comfortable with not standing for or supporting?

For example, are we comfortable with CAA student members not being allowed to use conventional pathways to report harassment after reading Dr King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" as a form of protest against suppressive free speech policies on campus? 

On behalf of the large movement inside and outside this room, I thank the MLK Committee for your steadfast work and the love and care that you have shown us students and this institute despite all the challenges of this year, I thank those of you who stood or raised your glass for your solidarity and bravery, I thank those who may not have stood but will consider the gravity of this space and legacy and find a future role for themselves.

For those gathered up here at the front, we will read a short joint statement, please repeat after me: 

We members of the MIT community [repeated by students at front] 

- students, staff, faculty - [repeated] 

recognize the importance of honoring Dr. King’s legacy of action [repeated]

We recognize the work of the MIT Coalition Against Apartheid [repeated]

both historically and today [repeated]

to free us from complicity [repeated]

In colonial and oppressive military projects [repeated]. 

MIT admin has tried to silence the CAA [repeated],

condemning its protests and sanctioning its organizers [repeated]

Dr. King knew [repeated] that unjust rules never compel those in power [repeated], and even just rules can be applied unjustly [repeated]

In his words [repeated]

“we do not need allies [repeated] 

more devoted to order than to justice.” [repeated] 

We call on MIT [repeated]

to reinstate the CAA [repeated],

retract threats against student leaders [repeated]

and to remove its unjust protest policy [repeated]

This is a minimum to honor Dr. King’s legacy [repeated]

We are all CAA! [repeated]

Thank you all, now a moment of silence for those facing bombardement and murder in Rafah, those throughout Gaza under genocide, those in all of Palestine facing colonization and oppression, all Palestinians throughout the diaspora, and those facing the end results of materialism and militarism from the streets of Boston to Haiti to the Congo to Sudan and beyond. Please bow your heads. [audience bows heads]

Thank you, as we all take our seats, let us remember the words of Dr. King: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Free the people.

Free the land.

And free, free Palestine! [repeated]

Austin Cole is a 3rd year Master’s student in Business and City Planning, a member of the Black Graduate Student Association, and member of the MIT Graduate Student Union-UE. He was chosen as the Graduate Speaker for the 50th MLK Celebration Gala.