Monday, January 18, 2010

A Day to Remember

A fellow science writer once told me there is physics in everything. So far, I think she's right. But I wondered if I'd be able to find any physics in today's celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday. It sometimes feels like physics is disengaged from issues of race in our nation (I guess because the focus of the field is not on people). But I know that's not true.

Just as there is ongoing discussion about how to increase the number of professional female physicists, so there is discussion about how to increase the number of professional physicists who belong to racial minorities. The United States' recent call to increase the number of science and engineering graduates not only relies on improving college programs, but improving science education all the way down to elementary schools. In particular, many poor, inner city schools around the country are in desperate need of better (or any) science programs. Quite often, the percentage of minority students is higher in these schools. The American Physical Society supports a number of programs to assist minority students, as does the National Society of Black Physicists.

This is a topic that could lead to many a long blog post, but in honor of MLK I'd rather recount a great story about a group of physicists who supported his cause during a period of great turmoil in our nation.

In the mid 1960's, particle physics was about to enter a new era with the construction of a new government laboratory, later named Fermilab after Enrico Fermi. Fermilab would eventually host the Tevatron, an accelerator that was, up until a few weeks ago when the LHC started up, the largest and most energetic accelerator in the world.

At the same time, cities across the nation were in flames. Riots and protests were raging over issues of civil rights. On paper, political progress was being made. There was the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1], that banned discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that restored and protected voting rights; the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, that dramatically opened entry to the U.S. to immigrants other than traditional European groups; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, that banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. But as with the Emancipation Proclamation, the passage of law enforcing civil rights did not equal immediate changes in the way people behaved. The acceptance of African Americans and other minorities into equal status with whites was met with great and violent resistance. Even in seemingly progressive and racially mixed cities like New York, ingrained social practices that promoted racial discrimination and separation caused flare ups of discontent. Putting the new legislation into practice meant removing old ways of thinking that were stuck in the collective social mind like tree stumps, which in some places did not come out easily.

Dr. Martin Luther King became a national leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 when he lead a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system. The boycott was set off by Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The boycott went on for nearly a year, and put a major dent in the bus system's budget. The success of the boycott inspired similar demonstrations around the country.

In the following years, King's influence on the national movement became a force to be reckoned with. Though King was an advocate of peaceful resistance, he insisted that the African American population not be quiet about the change that needed to happen in America.

In 1963, a federal bill to desegregate housing and make it open to all people regardless of race narrowly passed through Congress. But the state of Illinois rejected it's own version of the bill, and kept segregated housing legal. Once again, passing a law turned out to be much less difficult than making people obey it.

By 1967, open housing still wasn't being enforced in Illinois. That year, Robert Wilson was elected director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, though construction had yet to begin. The lab was set to be built in Batavia, Illinois, near a tiny community called Weston, about an hour outside Chicago. In defiance of Illinois' stance on housing, King threatened to protest the construction of the new facility. With so many other cities in turmoil, such a demonstration would scar the laboratory or threaten to stop it before it began, not to mention bring the riots to quiet Batavia, Illinois.

Who ever said physicists are detached from social issues should remember a handful of people who built Fermilab. The director of the laboratory, Robert Wilson, sent this telegram to Dr. King:

"We scientists now designing the 200 BeV accelerator to be located in Batavia strongly support the struggle for open housing in Illinois. Science has always progressed only through the free contribution of people of all races and creeds. This is not less true today in America, and the full
success of this laboratory will depend on achieving conditions in Illinois which allow any scientist, regardless of race or creed, to participate in this important project ­a project which will contribute to a truly great intellectual and cultural heritage in Illinois. We join you in wanting to attain these great ends."

And that wasn't all. Former deputy director Ned Goldwasser went to Chicago to meet with the leaders of minority groups and tell them that the lab intended to have hiring practices that reflected what we now call affirmative action. Goldwasser met with members of the Urban League, the NAACP, as well as the Black Panthers and Chicago gang members. The plan was to interview people in the gangs, find those who wanted the chance to get out, and let the lab be their opportunity.
Ken Williams joined the lab shortly there after and took the responsibility of interviewing the young gang members and recruiting them for a six month training period at Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Those who completed the training got jobs at Fermilab as technicians.

The protest at Fermilab was averted, and instead of becoming a symbol of intolerance, the lab became a symbol of progress.

It's good to remember that Dr. King was also a supporter of better education and professional opportunities for minorities. His protest was not against the progress of science, but the progress of a nation that would not treat it's own citizens equally. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes we look at the past with rose-colored glasses. Other historians of the time would argue that the construction of Fermilab was a cynical killing of the middle-class diverse city of Weston.

    I recommend looking at the book "Poliscide" that covers these events. The authors make the argument that Fermilab was in fact regressive in its founding and only paid lip-service to diversity; and then it was only done in the face or protests.

    I don't entirely agree with the authors, and feel they make a lot of undue assumptions. Nevertheless, viewing the alternative point of view is important. And I think it is entirely over the top to claim that the early NAL was a bulwark of progress for diversity.