Our degree from NYU allowed us to rise to the pinnacle in the professional fields of law, medicine, education, technology, engineering, public service, aerospace and journalism.
ON April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Within seven days of King’s death, James Hester, president of New York University, who was moved to set educational inequality on a new path, announced he was opening the doors of the private school to as many black and Hispanic students from New York City public schools as $1 million could support.
In the fall of 1968, 77 new black and Hispanic faces were among the 826 mostly white freshman students who arrived on NYU’s campus in the Bronx — 18 in the School of Engineering and 59 in University College. I was one of those 77.
Forty years later, when some of the 77 gathered together to share the trajectory of our lives after graduation, we discovered that our NYU degree was the first step on a ladder that allowed many of us to rise to the pinnacle in the professional fields of law, medicine, education, technology, engineering, aerospace, public service and journalism, leaving a lasting imprint on America.
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We defied failure. We stayed in school and earned our degrees.
Against the odds, we entered a university that had a history of admitting African-American students in some, but not all, departments. There was no universitywide policy of nondiscrimination based on race. And various schools and departments could determine their own policies regarding discrimination, from housing facilities to physical education.
Despite the extraordinary social and financial challenges that marked Hester’s tenure, he set the school on a course to today to make it not only one of the nation’s largest private universities, but a respected global research university.
Most important, he seeded an education for a growing group of blacks, Puerto Ricans and other racial minorities who, by all design, should not have had this opportunity but finally did. They in turn took their education and rose from the ghettos and barrios of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan to the height of their chosen professions and helped build the America we enjoy today.
From public service to foreign service, medical doctor to doctor of philosophy, banking to financial accounting, the law to the judicial bench, aerospace to brain research, the educational experience at NYU was the launching point into a middle-class life for all who were granted the King scholarship and who had seized this scholastic opportunity.
Last month in an affirmative-action case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia threw America back a half-century when, during oral arguments, he asked if African-American students are somehow inherently intellectually inferior to other students and should be placed in less advanced schools.
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school … a slower-track school where they do well,” Scalia said.
“Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that … they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
Unlike Scalia, the Russell Sage Foundation in New York sees a different America. After a national search, it selected me as one of two journalists for its inaugural Visiting Journalists Fellowship program to support my research and storytelling about those NYU Martin Luther King Jr. scholars.
With a mission to improve the social and living conditions in the United States, the foundation has long been at the forefront of studying the social, economic, political and racial inequities in our society through the research work of its social-scientist scholars.
The foundation sees the critical work of journalism — chronicling the growth of economic inequality and its consequences, inequities in educational achievement and attainment, the impact of modern immigration and recent racial tensions over urban policies — as a necessary medium in presenting Americans’ lives and lived experiences.
After 24 years of serving this community through my journalism leadership, I will turn out the lights in my office this week, depart The Seattle Times and begin a new journey researching and writing an enriching story of victory about an investment made at a critical time that translated into achievement.
And, maybe, it might find its way to Justice Scalia.