W. Ahmad Salih: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT
Edited and excerpted from an oral history interview conducted by telephone by Clarence G.Williams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with W. Ahmad Salih in Dove Canyon, California, 11 August 1999.
I was born in Chicago in 1950. We stayed there just a few years. I actually don’t remember much about Chicago, at least from my early years. We moved to Indianapolis when I was three years old.
My parents, John Porter Dailey and Clara Dailey, were basically poor uneducated blacks from the South. My father was from Mississippi. Actually, he had finished high school and gotten about a year of college before he dropped out. My mother only had a fourth-grade education. My father had a number of problems — the main one was alcoholism — and in spite of his relatively good education for that time period, he was basically unemployed most of the time. We lived in a number of basements and shanty-type places.
Actually, my father was kind of a wild guy. One of my first memories of him was of me riding drunk at age three or four on the back of his motorcycle, and he was handing the caps of Wild Turkey — that’s what he used to drink — back to me. Once he threw me in the river like some of the Indians used to do. He wanted to see — and I don’t remember this, this is from my older brothers and sisters — if I had any spunk. I don’t know what he was going to do if I didn’t try to swim. Was he going to let me drown? I guess I must have tried, so he jumped in and got me.
But anyway, my father was a pseudo-hustler — that is, he wasn’t very good at it. The problem was that he didn’t work, and welfare was totally different back in Indiana in the early ’50s. They didn’t have the priorities they have now of trying to keep families together. In fact, they primarily tried to get more bang for the buck in terms of their budget, I assume, so there was a lot of warehousing of kids. Our family broke up when I was five years old. Actually, what happened was that my father ended up burning down the place where we were staying. We were staying in a basement with a dirt floor and no bathroom. We had to go upstairs to the people that we rented from to go to the bathroom. There was one room, and there were five kids at the time. Later, my youngest brother and sister were born.
Anyway, after burning that house down, obviously we didn’t have a place to stay and we started staying with my cousins. But they had a huge family. There were thirteen kids there. So with the five of us, there were eighteen kids and four adults, and that was just too big of a household. I had a lot of fun, though, because when you’ve got eighteen kids in a house, nobody can keep track of you and you can do pretty much what you want. We stayed there for probably about three or four months, and I guess it got to be too much. We ended up going on welfare. We were taken to a place called The Guardians’ Home, which was an institution for homeless children.
My older brother Larry and I ended up going from there to a foster home. I lived most of my life with Mr. and Mrs. Hare. I called them “Mother and Daddy Hare.” They didn’t believe in calling men “Reverend,” as “there is none reverend but God.” Mr. Hare was a Protestant Holy Ghost minister. Anyway, he started out as the assistant pastor of the church — the Church of Living God, Pillar and Ground of the Truth. It was a little storefront church and had probably about twenty members. We used to go to church all the time, every day except Saturday and three times on Sunday. So I lived my early life in church.
We went there when I was six, in June of 1956. At that time, the welfare department didn’t let you keep in touch with your family. My mother would come visit. For a while, my father came to visit, but after a couple of years, he stopped. My mother continued to visit every couple of weeks — that was the maximum she was allowed. It turned out that she ended up joining the church that Daddy Hare was assistant pastor of, so we used to see her every Sunday in church. But it was a number of years before I found out where my sisters were. I had four sisters, and they went to another home.
I stayed with Mother and Daddy Hare until I was eighteen. My brother stayed there until he was about fourteen. He had an incident with Mr. Hare, about whose turn it was to wash dishes, and he ran away from home. Then they sent him back to the Guardians’ Home. Eventually, he ended up living at the foster home that my other sisters were at, at the time. They actually lived in many foster homes, I think four or five in all. For a short time, my two oldest sisters lived with my mother and father after he joined the Nation of Islam and straightened out his life.
I think that was one of the first big breaks of my life, the fact that I had a stable home life in spite of the rough beginnings. I lived with parents who loved me, and I could see the big difference between my life and how it has turned out versus my brothers and sisters. I later ran into them a lot when I went to high school. This was in ’64, at Shortridge High School. That was the second big break of my life. I look at my life as a series of lucky breaks. It kind of makes you believe in a divinity.
So I went to Shortridge. Initially, it was a predominantly white public high school on the north side of Indianapolis. The neighborhood was changing because there were blacks moving in. It used to be sort of a Jewish neighborhood, and they were kind of moving out in the ’60s. When I first went there, it was probably seventy percent white and by the time I graduated, it was about seventy percent black. In the meantime, right about my sophomore year, the board of the Indianapolis Public Schools turned it into a magnet school. It was an attempt, I guess, to stave off the “black takeover” of Shortridge. But it didn’t work.
Actually, you had to take a test then to get in because it was a magnet school. The good thing, and this is what I call a big break in my life, was that they had a lot of subjects that high schools don’t normally have. I took two years of chemistry. Most high schools in Indiana had one year. Also, I had two years of physics and two years of calculus. They had languages, too. Besides the standards — Spanish and French — they also had Latin, Greek, Chinese, and Japanese. You normally didn’t get those kinds of courses in a public high school.
The other thing I’d say was a big break was in terms of me taking advantage of those things, which actually is ironic. Let me go back a little bit. In junior high and elementary school, I was pretty much a rebel. I tried to be a bad boy. I was run- ning around with all these guys and getting into trouble. But I always liked doing problems and I always liked puzzles, which sort of went from there to science and math. But the rebel part of me was that a lot of times if I didn’t like a teacher, then I didn’t want to “perform” for them. So I would do things just ass-backwards. I’d get every question on the test wrong, which, of course, is hard to do on a multiple-choice exam unless you know all the answers. I used to do that frequently.
But in my grade school, in the eighth grade, they determined the valedictorian by this achievement test, not your grades. Even though I had bad grades, I ended up scoring the highest on the achievement test. So here I was, this guy with D’s and F’s, and valedictorian. They didn’t know what to do, but they felt they had to go by the rules. That was probably a first.
One of my foster brothers, named Elmo, ended up dropping out of school at age sixteen, which was the earliest age that you could drop out. He joined the Navy and ended up going to Vietnam, but that’s another story. One of the things he told me when I was kind of ragging on him about dropping out was, “Well, you’re going to do it, too.” He knew I was messing up in school and everything — it was not a secret. And I was basically telling him, “Well, I get bad grades because I want to — I don’t have to.” And he was like, “Yeah, right.”
So in order to prove to him that I could get good grades if I wanted to, that actually is what turned my academic performance around. It was really trying to prove something to Elmo. This happened right around the time I was valedictorian of the eighth grade. I went to summer school and decided to really start trying. They let you double up in math. I took Algebra I and Geometry I at the same time. Then I basically doubled up each year, mostly in math and science, because that’s what I liked. Of course, it didn’t work out exactly as I anticipated, because of having all those bad habits from all those years of being basically a screw-up. There were bad habits I had to get rid of. My grades didn’t go straight from F’s to A’s. It was sort of a gradual transition. I started out with C’s and B’s, maybe my first semester. And then there were B’s and A’s. Then after my sophomore year, it was pretty much A’s. By doubling up on the math stuff, I was able to take all the prerequisites in math and science, so that I was able to take advantage of all those other courses that were offered by being a magnet school.
And I participated in a bunch of activities. I was interested in football and I played for a couple of years. I wasn’t very good. I started out being a wide receiver, but I couldn’t catch the ball. I ended up being a DB, defensive back, because I was fast. That worked out okay, but I never made the varsity. I wrestled for a couple of years. I did better in that and captured the city championship at 127 pounds (imagine me at 127 pounds!).
Track was my main thing. I ran for four years. Actually, a coach I had really helped out between my junior and senior years. We had a great track team. I ran the quarter. Since then it’s been converted to the 400 meters. But I went from being the last man on the reserve squad to the first man on varsity, because this coach worked us out with isometric weights and resistance exercises. Plus, he was really a freak about conditioning. We used to run around this big graveyard, which was like four miles — even the guys who ran sprints, the long sprints, like myself. Then he worked on our upper bodies, weightlifting in the off-season. I had never done off-season workouts before.
We did well. Our mile relay team and myself at the quarter went to the state meet. I actually got dusted in the state meet. I came in ninth in the quarter. But I won the city, the sectional, and the regional, and going to the state was a big accomplishment for me in track, coming from being on the reserve team the previous year and not even being on the list. Our mile relay went to sort of a tri-state meet with Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. Then we went to the Florida Relays because we had one of the best times in the country. I had got- ten my time down to like 48.7, which was good for high school back then. Of course, some of these kids in high school I see out here now in California are running 46.
But anyway, back in ’68 that was pretty good and I had sights on continuing my athletic career. I started running indoor track when I came to MIT. But then I got involved in politics.
You actually did exceedingly well in high school, as you mentioned. You were a National Merit finalist.
I ended up doing a lot of stuff. Actually, they used to call me “Mr. President” because I got into politics early. I was involved in a lot of different clubs, which sort of grew out of my academic interests. There was the Spanish club, math club, Mu Alpha Theta, which is like an honorary for math, et cetera, and I was president of all these things. I was also in music. I was in the band for four years, playing baritone/trumpet, in the orchestra on French horn, and I was in Thespians and in plays and musicals and all that stuff.
So basically, I knew everybody. By coming from a hoodlum background, I knew all the homeboys. By being in football, wrestling, and track, I knew all the athletes. By being a nerd in calculus and physics, I knew all the scholars. And by being in the band and orchestra and Thespians, I knew all the musicians and actors. So politics was a natural progression, and that’s why I was elected senior class president, president of the student council, and all that kind of stuff.
Was it Elmo you mentioned who was very influential?
In my starting to make an effort with my school work.
Were there any other role models or mentors?
The first teacher who really got me interested in learning — the discovery of the “aha!” and the fun and thrill of learning — was actually a math teacher in sixth grade. All the schools in Indianapolis were numbered, so that was School 41. That was Mr. Hormburger, I still remember him. And there was a guy who was a science teacher in my elementary school. He was the same way. Just about six months ago, I read his obituary. A guy sent it to me, one of my friends out here in California. This teacher’s name was Dr. Morton Finney. He actually had two Ph.D’s and spoke about seven languages. It was amazing that he was teaching at an elementary school, but part of that is just the racism of Indiana in the ’50s and ’60s.
He was black?
Yes, and he actually was a teacher of my foster mother. We used to play all kind of games with Morton Finney, but he got me interested in science. He just died this last year at 109 years old. It was on the Internet that he was actually not only a teacher, but he spoke seven languages and he was an attorney (which I didn’t know). I forget what his degrees were in, but Morton Finney was an amazing guy. Anyway, he was a mentor of mine. And then in high school, Mr. Green, who was my calculus instructor, was the cause of me going to MIT. I had never heard of MIT. I was planning on going to the Marines, which gets into my political bent. I was very conservative in my outlook. I was going to volunteer to fight for my country in Vietnam. That was my goal. My brother actually was more of a radical. He had joined the Muslims. Coincidentally, my real father, John Dailey, had turned his life around during my high school years and had joined the Nation of Islam. Occasionally, I would go back and forth between Islam and Christianity, because of the church I grew up in. There were some occasional sit-ins and things back then. They were starting in ’67 or ’68. Some of the SCLC stuff that was happening around ’64 with King, and so on, had hit Indianapolis. But I never participated because, like I said, I was very conservative. My brother Larry did, though.
I was more into all of my activities and academics and Mr. Green persuaded me to apply to MIT. He didn’t only persuade me, he filled out the application himself and basically just had me sign it. MIT was the only school I applied to.
Was Mr. Green black?
No, he was white. He later became the principal of Shortridge. I’m not sure what happened to him after that, because they closed the school down. And then after I got accepted, I had a choice to make — am I going to go to the Marines or am I going to go to this school, MIT? It was actually a girlfriend of mine at the time who helped me make the decision, because she basically said, “Well, you know, if you go to the Marines, you can’t leave when you want to leave. If you go to school, you can come back and visit me or I can come up and see you.” And I said, “Well, that’s true. Alright, I’ll go to MIT instead of Vietnam.” That was my choice.
You had never seen MIT at all?
Never went there. I sort of got an inkling it was a prestigious university. Back in the ghetto in Indiana and many places, they have these people who sell life insurance policies and come around and collect every couple of weeks or whatever. The insurance man came by once and he was really pissed off. He was yelling and screaming to Mrs. Hare that his son had done this and that and had gotten straight A’s. He had gone to a white suburban high school — I think it was North Central or one of those. Anyway, he was just mad. I remember him yelling, “My son got rejected from MIT — how did your son get in?” Mrs. Hare knew a little more about it, that it was basically an honor and an achievement if they accepted you. I didn’t think it was any big thing, because I had never heard of MIT.
The other reason I decided to go was that the requirements for graduation, when I looked at them, were primarily math and science, which is what I liked. They were very lenient on the liberal arts part of it. The requirements were minimal, as opposed to other universities. I wasn’t interested in history or English and all that kind of stuff, so I said, “Oh yeah, this is the kind of place for me.” Plus, I wanted to get away from Indiana. And that was basically how I got to MIT, with the help of Mr. Green.
Can you say a little bit about your impressions when you first came? I assume you did not come to Project Interphase.
No. Actually, that was one of the things we started after I got here. My class, the class of ’72, was the last of what I call “the old school.” There were seven of us blacks. There was myself, Warren Shaw, Richard Prather, Fred Johnson, Charles Andrews, Henry Cusick, and Harold Brown. The class after us, ’73, was the first big class of blacks. I think there were seventy-seven or something, ten times as many. A lot of that was a result of the protests and the activities that we started. I was not involved much that first year, because I continued in my conservative trend. As a matter of fact, I joined a white fraternity, SAE. I lived on Beacon Street, “Fraternity Row.”
Do you remember your impressions when you first got here?
My first impression was one of hard work, that it was like what someone told me later — getting a drink of water from a fire hose. I was used to basically skating in high school, the way most people probably were. The last two years or so of my high school career, I was getting A’s primarily on reputation. I really wasn’t working that hard.
But when I came to the Institute, I had to start working. It was actually good that that first year they started the experiment of not having grades for freshmen, having freshmen on the pass/fail system, because of the freshmen suicides that had historically been at MIT. Actually, they had the highest freshman suicide rate in the nation. That was not something they were proud of, but it was a fact. A lot of it was because all these guys were coming from private schools, with everybody being No. 1 in their high-school class. Then you came to MIT and all of a sudden you were average, just like everybody else. It was the same thing for me as far as an academic shock, because I was used to getting A’s on reputation and working just very minimally. Then all of a sudden, I’m working my butt off and I’m getting C’s. That was a shock and also a little threat to my ego.
But it was also, I think, a good thing in terms of me being in SAE, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Actually, there was only one other black in that fraternity — Jack Anderson. He was a senior when I was a freshman. I never knew what happened to Jack. Anyway, they were sort of an academic/athletic fraternity.
I think they picked me because I was typical of their type. They didn’t haze you as much as some of the other fraternities. They were more interested in everybody buckling down and getting a good background in academics, getting 8.01 and 18.01 under the belt — making sure that you got those things down pat, because if you didn’t, when you got to the courses in your major, you were going to be stuck.
So it was good that I did get a good academic background that first year, and I didn’t participate in much else. In January they had IAP, Independent Activities Period. The same girlfriend I was talking about — her name was Teresa — went to Indiana University. One time she came to visit me right before Christmas. All her hair was cut off and she had one of those little short ’fros. I was like, “My god, you’re ugly!” But she got me to reading all of this black stuff. I remember reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “A Hundred Years of Lynchings,” which is a book that still tears me up — I found it again about a year ago.
That book got me so upset at white people in general that I started losing weight. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t live in that fraternity anymore. I moved out. I disaffiliated. It wasn’t easy to disaffiliate from a fraternity, because I had actually “gone over” and become a brother, a member. But it was like February of that year, after our pledge class went over, that I just said I had had enough, and I disaffiliated from SAE. I went through the national, went through all the paperwork that was necessary to get my name off all the rosters. It was so ironic because SAE, even though they were very academic and athletic and all this stuff, had really helped me.
But when I went through that, after reading all that stuff, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and the lynchings and all the other stuff that happened in black history, I spent my whole IAP doing that — reading like three books a week. Then I was about to go through the initiation ceremony, where the SAE hoods — I shouldn’t probably be telling anybody this, because the ceremony is confidential — looked just like the Klan’s. There we were wearing the Klan hoods. I mean, we didn’t have a burning cross, but that image was painful. I said, “No, I’ve got to get out of this — I cannot do this.”
So I disaffiliated from SAE and ended up moving in with a group of guys on St. Botolph Street. I moved in with three black guys — Henry Tucker, Michael Hicks, and Stephen Carney. They were all from the class of ’71. We moved over on St. Botolph Street, which is about a mile from the Charles River. Then I went back to Indiana that last summer and stayed with Mrs. Hare and them, and that was the last time I went back home.
Then my sophomore year, I started going to BSU meetings. I remember Shirley Jackson was the president and Alan Gilkes was like the recruiter. Alan was always buttonholing people, walking through the halls. He’d see somebody black and tell them to join the BSU. So I went to a couple of meetings, and that was when I started my involvement with the BSU.
And then it really mushroomed. I came back early that summer from Indiana. I worked at Eli Lilly that summer and I couldn’t deal with the restrictions of Ms. Hare’s house — she was too conservative — so I had to live on my own. When I went back to MIT, I still stayed with Tucker, Hicks, and Carney, and started getting involved in black activities, both on campus and off. On campus, we really did a lot of stuff that second year. There were takeovers at Brandeis, Tufts, and Harvard, and we had the big takeover of the Faculty Club at MIT. By that time, I had become the co-chairman of BSU along with Warren Shaw, who was my roommate.
It started out, actually, that we had gotten involved with SOBU — the Student Organization of Black Unity — that had been formed the previous year. There weren’t that many black students at any of the schools around the Boston area, so we decided to kind of work together and take on each institution. There were representatives of each school in SOBU, even though it was dominated by Harvard and BU because they had the biggest black populations. But everybody was sort of represented, from Tufts, Brandeis, Wellesley, and BC — even farther away, Smith, Vassar, Holyoke, and Brown. I was the unofficial MIT rep to SOBU.
We started attacking each school individually, and Brandeis was the first. First, we started talking to the administrations of each school and getting together to compare notes about how our discussions were going. Basically, the discussions mostly involved getting black studies, getting more black students, getting blacks financial aid, more black administrators, professors, et cetera. This was in ’69 and ’70. Most of the administrations talked to us, but they weren’t moving fast enough for us.
That’s when we decided to take a more proactive stand. We weren’t in the mode of demonstrating. We wanted to put some pressure on them — I mean, as far as picketing, or sit-ins, or teach-ins — like the white students were doing, about Vietnam. That previous spring we had seen the first building takeover by blacks at a white institution, and it made the cover of Time mainly because of guys carrying shotguns. That was at Cornell, and we had a couple of representatives from Cornell come talk to us at SOBU. And we said, “Why not here? Hey, let’s take it to the stage.”
So that’s what we did at Brandeis. That was the first time we actually broke into an administration office, using physical force. They let all the secretaries and other people go and held the higher-ups hostage. That became a prototype for the way we’d do it at each school. Students who actually attended a particular school would do the breaking in and the hostage-taking, etcetera. We tried to make sure the president, chancellor, or some senior administrator was there to hold hostage.
When we finally did MIT, which was the following spring, we did it over at the Faculty Club and at a time when they had a meeting of the Corporation. There were a lot of important people there. It was February or March 1970, something like that. Howard Johnson was the president, and he was there. Wiesner was there. Paul Gray was there. He was the chancellor then and later became president. There were a lot of other people who were members of the Corporation — Du Pont, the president of U.S. Steel, the governor of Puerto Rico. We held all those guys hostage for about two days. The people from the other schools would provide support, meaning food, communications, and a show of force. They would stand out front and they’d have their shotguns and everything for the TV cameras.
At that time, we had expanded our focus from just student activities to community con- cerns: unemployment, police brutality, and so on. At MIT there was a disagreement going on at that time between the kitchen workers over at the Faculty Club and the administration. I forget, really, even what their issue was. It had something to do with the pay scale and also with working hours and not being paid overtime — stuff that was really, frankly, illegal, even at that time under the labor laws. But MIT was getting away with it. Sowe said, “Hey, we’re going to support them.” We wanted community support for our academic demands and we felt it was only natural that we should support the community, especially the workers in our own institution.
So basically, we took over the Faculty Club to support the workers. It was almost kind of like Martin Luther King and his group, when they went down to support the garbage workers in Memphis, where he was assassinated. We were supporting our workers over at the Faculty Club. We issued our academic demands along with their employment demands.
It was a surprise and a shock to the administration. Then we went into negotiations and we got most of what we wanted, even though later MIT rescinded all of them. We wanted full financial aid, regardless of need, for all black students. We wanted the ability to take courses at any university and get credit for it in your major. We wanted the ability to hire and fire professors, the ability to have a board — and we later actually even got this— composed of half students and half administrators and former students, with the ability to forgive loans for black students. We wanted to be able to interview and have a representative on the admissions committee, because we wanted a say in the type of black student who would come there. We wanted to have a voting member on the admissions committee. Surprisingly, we got all of that.
What kind of student did all of you feel would be the kind of black student you thought should come to MIT?
We had many discussions about that. At this time the goals were changing so fast, almost month to month. At first we were just interested in ourselves, in terms of getting more black students, black studies, and sort of the whole Boston black student community being able to interrelate. We were in communication with a lot of black students from other universities. There weren’t that many, and we found out that we were all grabbing for the same people to be administrators and to teach black studies courses. I remember Hayward Henry used to come and teach at MIT, but he was also teaching courses at Harvard and at BU. We said, “Hey, why should we run Hayward Henry crazy? Why shouldn’t he just be able to teach one course at one school and have us all come to one place and then get credit for it in our own universities?”
It went from that kind of thing to the hiring and firing of professors. If they didn’t support the students or if they were abusive, we’d want to get rid of them. The goal, of course, was to try and change the black community and be of service to the black community. So we wanted people who were academically strong, but also who were activist-oriented and interested in politics — local, national, international. Of course, we’d have the typical fights between violence and non-violence as far as tactics and things like that. We didn’t care what side of the argument you were on as long as you were involved.
There were always the factions. There was the faction that supported the Panther Party and the RNA, which I later joined — the Republic of New Africa. The RNA was one of the separatist organizations. Then there was the non-violent religious faction. There was a big Christian movement at MIT. Some later formed the Gospel Choir et cetera. Then they affiliated with local black churches and started having services here. Some even later became ministers, like Lyman Alexander and Paula Waters. They were primarily proponents of Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence, as opposed to those of us who believed in Malcolm X’s philosophy, of not turning the other cheek and of fighting fire with fire.
So we were trying to integrate all of these viewpoints. The whole idea was that, as a BSU, we would not align ourselves exclusively with any tactic. The whole idea was to get the job done by any means necessary. Whatever tactic would work, that’s what we were interested in. So we were not going to align ourselves with the Panther Party, SCLC, NAACP, or any other group. But we wanted to support students in these organizations in activities that we thought would help the black community. We wanted students who would be active in whatever they believed in. In fact, I probably would have written myself off, because here I was, a conservative — I mean, the way I was in high school — young black man coming to MIT, certainly not interested or active in politics at all. If I had interviewed myself two years earlier, I probably would have rejected myself.
I would bring that up sometimes at a meeting, that you can’t tell how a person’s going to be at twenty by interviewing him at seventeen. I remember Sam Denard. He came in just like me, very conservative and not interested in politics, and later became one of the more dedicated student activists. My view was that we shouldn’t exclude anybody, because these were people in their formative years and you were not going to be able to tell who was going to be an activist. My feeling was, “Hey, anybody who’s interested, let them come — we should just try to help them as much as possible.”
I think that was some of the discussion that later produced Interphase. We got a lot of people in 1969, the class of ’73. MIT pretty much let us do what we wanted. The admissions committee was trying to get as many blacks as possible, usually those at the top of their classes. But they weren’t screening them very well. Then when they got to MIT, everybody started getting all of this political activity. Plus, there was all the social stuff — you know, parties everywhere, all the time. Basically, they didn’t get a good academic background the way I did at SAE.
So I think of that seventy-seven, only twenty- two graduated on time. We just realized, after that first year, that a number of them were getting incompletes in their courses. We started a tutoring program which I got involved in, and then we worked with the administration and created Interphase to help with the transition. I think that was the first year of Interphase, ’70. I was actually in charge of social activities for that. I had sort of gotten a reputation of being a partier.
Your group really paved the way to develop all of these programs that are here now.
One of the guys I have to pay tribute to is Fred Johnson. I’ve lost track of him. A few people I’ve run into since that time have tried to find him and have not been able to. He’s one of the guys who actually was involved my first year. I think he paid probably the biggest price. He and Shirley Jackson co-chaired before Warren and me. With all the meetings and everything he was going to, he ended up not finishing school and he didn’t come back. Fred was certainly an intelligent guy, brighter than a lot of us, but basically he sacrificed his career for the black student community at MIT.
There were a lot of people who paid a high price. For myself, it’s kind of like I was willing to sacrifice and I would do my activities, but on Friday night or Saturday night, I’d go back to my room and I wasn’t going to let my grades slip.
You were a politician, but you also knew you had to get your work done, right?
Right. I did all that. Then, I guess, the other big part of my early MIT years I was on the radio. We started that. It used to be called WTBS. I don’t know what its call letters are now. I heard they sold the call letter rights to Ted Turner because of the conflict with the letters. We started out as just a half-hour radio station, once a week. I had the first show. I was the DJ and I got my first class license from the FCC, and I was the first “Ghetto” engineer.
Then JC, James Clark, came as a freshman in ’71, and he was really active in it. We ended up forming “The Ghetto.” We named it after Donny Hathaway’s song. We went from one half hour once a week to taking over the station eventually. We were all night, seven days a week. Bose, the guy who makes all the speakers, was our faculty advisor in Course VI.We got a lot of electronics hands-on from him. There was another guy — we had a lot of people help us along the way — who was on the board of MIT, the Corporation, and also on the board of the FCC. He got our antenna raised and got us more power, so then we were covering all of the Boston area.
We became like the No. 1 station in Boston — I mean, black, white, everything. Everybody listened to us. When people would come to Boston — entertainers like Aretha Franklin, War, Kool & the Gang, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five — they came down to “The Ghetto.” There was Richard Pryor, Isaac Hayes, and jazz stars like Al Jarreau, all these guys. Everybody listened to “The Ghetto.”We were the No. 1 black station in Boston for a while. We used that vehicle to sort of help in uniting the black community. It’s kind of like if you had any event that was going on in Boston that was black, then you had to get it on “The Ghetto,” because everybody would hear it.
When people would come into town, a lot of times they would want us to emcee. I remember we had a concert featuring War. Dave Lee, who was in the class of ’74, formed a band named Emissary Blaque. I was a semi-musician, but actually I was singing and playing congas. We played warm-up at different concerts in the Boston area and at school parties. I remember we sort of had a thing with War, because we played warm-up with him at a couple of concerts. Then there was a concert with Aretha Franklin and with Earth, Wind & Fire where I emceed. We’d earn money that way, on the side. But for actually working at the station, we decided not to pay ourselves.
Then there was the tutoring program and all of the political activities. I also got involved my sophomore year with RNA, the Republic of New Africa, after I quit the Black Panther Party. That’s where I got my name. I actually didn’t mention that, but the name I was born under was Milton David Dailey. I guess my first year, when I lived over on St. Botolph, they started calling me Ahmad, which means “praiseworthy.”
Let me back up a little bit. The RNA was a group that believed in revolution, as opposed to reform. They believed the Malcolm X doctrine that the problem with black people in America was that we lacked the power to control our lives and that the only way to get that power would be to do the same thing that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and all those guys did: to declare ourselves independent and form a nation, and then to wage war to defend our independence. In terms of the Malcolm X doctrine, we believed that, as black people in America, we couldn’t go along with either, say, Martin Luther King’s SCLC policy, protesting in a non-violent manner — we didn’t understand the spiritual power of non-violence — or even people like the Black Panther Party. Even though the Black Panthers had guns for self-defense, they still were asking for the same things that Martin Luther King was: reform, that is, a piece of the American pie — better jobs, housing, educational opportunities, end to police brutality, and so on.
But the position of the RNA was that we didn’t want to get jobs at General Motors, we wanted to get our own General Motors. We didn’t want to have equal access to educational institutions like MIT, we wanted to create our own MIT. And even on a higher level, we didn’t want the federal government to give us programs such as Title IX and Head Start and all this stuff, we wanted to create our own government. We were going to take the Five States in the south, where most black people live, and have a plebiscite monitored by the UN, similar to what they had planned in Palestine in the ’40s. That grew out of the Zionist movement and the subsequent violence in the region between the Arabs and the Israelis. The British basically tried to wash their hands of it and hold a plebiscite to let the people decide, in that area, who they wanted to be governed by.
That was our goal, to eventually cause so much rioting and violence and everything — blowing up power stations and buildings and just creating chaos — to make the area non-governable, and then eventually have a plebiscite which would be monitored by the United Nations. Surprisingly, we got a number of people to listen to us, mostly Eastern Bloc and Non-Aligned Countries that despised the U.S. and its practice of talking democracy while supporting dictators. We had a non-governmental seat at the UN. We talked to representatives from China, Russia, Cuba, Libya, and so on. As a matter of fact, a couple of times, when we got arrested after some of our building takeovers, different foreign delegations would bail us out of jail. So we thought we were hot shit. It’s like we had taken on MIT and Harvard and Tufts, et cetera, let’s take on the United States and the world.
Who else other than you was in the RNA?
There was Balaghoun (Howard Meekins), Hakim (Henry Tucker), Henry Cusick, and a few more. I’m talking about MIT students who were in the RNA. There were Tucker, Hicks, and Carney. Tucker was Henry Tucker. He changed his name to Hakim Amir Abdallah. Meekins was in the class after me, ’73, and he changed his name to Oba Balaghoun Ali. And then there was “Memphis,” Frederick Douglass Williams. He joined, even though he was not that active. Then some of the other guys joined from over at St. Botolph Street. I remember Ron Johnson. He was actually on the other side. He joined the Panther Party. I was in the Party for a summer, but then I got out of the Party and joined the RNA.
You guys were radical.
I wasn’t really that much into the Communist philosophy. I thought the main problem we had in America was our skin color. In terms of who was the “we” that was oppressed, it was more on a racial basis than on an economic basis. But yes, some of us really got radical. We used to go out in the Blue Hills and practice taking apart our weapons and everything, preparing for the revolution.
You were the co-chairperson of BSU at the time. You were very outspoken, if I remember correctly. I got really tickled when I read this statement in The Tech that you had written to the MIT administration. Do you remember what you said?
No, I don’t remember that statement.
Basically, what you said was that the administration was not moving fast enough for you.
We wanted everything now. We weren’t willing to wait on anything.
You told the administration that they needed to get off their ass and do what you told them to do. I have this quote out of The Tech. It’s so different from a student I would see today. They really need to understand that we had some students here who really said what they wanted to say and did not waste any words.
I think it was the climate of the times, too, because even the white students were very radical at that time. One of the main problems we used to have was trying to keep the SDS out, the Students for a Democratic Society. Their primary focus was ending the war in Vietnam at that time. They wanted to support us, and when they got wind that we were going to take over a building and hold some people hostage, et cetera, they wanted to help supply us with ammunition and food and things like that. We were also pretty sexist at that time, because the women prepared us food and the guys were on patrol outside.
But SDS helped us. We ended up finally saying, “Okay, you can help us by creating a diversion.” They ended up having a big demonstration over at the Instrumentation Labs, protesting the war. They broke in there with a battering ram, which resulted in a lot of police going over there. That allowed us really easy access to the Faculty Club. We took it over and held the Corporation members and administrators hostage. Then SDS came over with their demonstration and marched outside in support of the BSU.
We held them for about two days. Even the white kids were radical. I remember when SDS broke into President Howard Johnson’s office. When Ellsberg tried to publish all this secret stuff about the CIA, and then the CIA went to court to try to prevent him from publishing it, the reason the Supreme Court voted that he be allowed to publish it was because all the stuff that he was going to publish had already been published. It had been published by SDS in the MIT Press, after the white students had broken into the president’s office and ripped off his files. That was a crazy scene. Those four dudes were wearing ski masks and tennis shoes, but otherwise buck naked, and using a homemade battering ram. Those were wild times. I remember one of the things that Nixon’s boys were doing was trying to stop Ellsberg. That’s why they broke into his psychiatrist’s office, in an effort to get info on him. That was part of the thing that brought him down — that, plus the Democratic headquarters break-in at the Watergate Hotel in DC.
But anyway, backing up, there were factions, of course, in the BSU. Even though I was part of the radical faction, the black nationalist/separatist faction with the RNA, I think the reason they elected me was because I was not dogmatic and was able to communicate with people who didn’t believe like I did. I could see different sides. Similarly, I guess, to my political beginnings in high school, I was accepted by a lot of different groups. I was with the Party, I had the band, and was with the radio station. I was also with the nerds and with the tutoring program. I was with the athletes, because I was on the track team freshman year and played IM football, both with SAE and then later with the BSU.
Doing all those things you were doing, how did you do academically?
I ended up with a 4.3 grade point average — 5.0 is an A at MIT. The tutoring program helped me. During my running around, it was kind of like I found I had to go back and learn some of that stuff in order to tutor. Also, in tutoring different people, you have to explain things. Basically, I learned a lot of subjects at MIT by tutoring them. That helped me when I went to my upper division courses.
I ended up in Course XVI, aerospace, and that was sort of a fluke. I was an undesignated senior and that was the only subject I could graduate in on time. That’s how it happened. I had switched before. I started out in Course V and then, after taking 5.01 and 5.02, I said, “Oh no, I am not going to take chemistry.” I was going to go to do Course XVIII, then I went to Course VI, and then I went to Course II. I even took two courses over in Course XV at the Sloan School. I was taking this and that. The only thing, it turned out, in which I could graduate on time was Course XVI. By the time my senior year was coming around, I’m like, “Oh man, I’d better think about graduation here and declare a major.” When I started looking at the different courses, I had taken a little bit of this and that. That’s basically what aerospace is. Now they’ve sort of compartmentalized Course XVI, but back then their major requirements were so varied.
Then I ended up staying there and basically getting my SM and EAA degrees. Automatic control was my main thing, and guidance and navigation were an offset of automatic control. Then I started working over at the Mann Machine Laboratory, which was part of Course II, and I did a thesis over there. And that actually led to my first job after I got out of college — at GE doing finite element analysis and programming the modes of vibration of a twisted blade, designing jet engine compressors.
You’ve done a lot of things since you left MIT, and ended up in a totally different profession than what you were trained here for. When you look back on it now, what would you say was best about your experience at MIT and what would you say was worst?
I’d say the best thing was really just being lucky enough to come to Boston at the time I did. It caused me to begin my life of introspection, which has really been a large portion of my life, and also of community service — even though at that time, like I mentioned before, I pretty much had a black/white view of the world.
You mentioned something before about a letter or statement I had sent to the administration. We had a lot of discussions that would go into all of those communications or communiqués that we would give to the outside world. Even though I might have been the spokesman, most of those things were agreed-upon. How I would say them was kind of up to me. Those discussion groups that went on — both discussion groups with the SDS and talking about the philosophies of non-violence, violence, the goals, “separate nation,” equal opportunity, this kind of thing, the tactics, et cetera — encouraged me to basically gain a good political education in terms of not only the black struggle in America, but expanding to the struggles in Africa and the Middle East and in the Far East, in China and Ireland and Central America. So it sort of started my political education, and I continue to be interested in national and international politics to this day.
Also, I guess I didn’t realize it at the time, but my last name — Salih — was actually given to me by the Minister of Defense of the Republic of New Africa, Alajo. He called me Salih because I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t see at the time. Salih means “righteous,” and at the time I was an atheist. I’m like, “What?” Now that I look back on it, I could see that, because even though I was involved in all these activities, every time you saw me, I was always carrying around some religious book, whether it was the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran. That was like an avocation of mine. I was always studying religious thought, not just because I could see that great leaders from different parts of the world always had a philosophy to guide them and give them the inner strength they would need to withstand daily trials, but because I had an inward drive to know the truth. Perhaps that’s what Alajo saw.
My search for that higher power, for that inner strength, had started out a little earlier. I mentioned that my real father converted to Islam when I was in high school, and yet I grew up in the Sanctified Church. Mr. Hare later split off from that church where he was assistant pastor and became the pastor of his church. So I was going back and forth between the Temple Islam and the Sanctified Church, Christianity. The big question in my mind was, which was the right religion? Later, I branched out with people we met from different countries and different religions. I started studying a little Buddhism and Hinduism, and so on. That’s how I got the name Salih.
So the introspection came from both my political involvement and my own private study that was going on throughout those years in terms of religion. At the end of what I thought was my first study, the four years or so at MIT, I sort of concluded that there was no God, that man had made him up in order to explain things he didn’t understand, to answer the questions that were unanswerable — such as, Where was I before I was born?
Actually, I discovered God for myself in the late ’70s, after I had left MIT. Ironically, I discovered him when I was up at Stanford and I was gambling. I got into backgammon. I used to go up to San Francisco and play in these tournaments, and occasionally in the big tournaments in Vegas. I discovered the power of belief, mostly by way of the dice. Initially, I used to play a very scientific game. I knew all the rolls of the dice and I knew the probabilities of various situations. That’s how I played my game, and I did pretty well. I would usually get to the finals of most tournaments. I’d never win, but I’d beat most people. Then one time in Vegas, I ran into this guy who was talking about how you could influence the rolls of the dice with your mind, the power of the mind. I thought,“Aw, that’s bullshit, but I’ll try it.” I’d try anything. By trying that, even though I ended up with a slightly different method than his, I did discover the power of belief — and this was something I wasn’t taught at MIT. I discovered the power of the mind. And then later on, I went back to my studies of Buddhism and Christianity and found that that’s what they were saying — that the power of belief works not only on dice but it can work on life in general.
That was one of the things that shaped my later life. I discovered the power of belief and the power of letting go. From my initial ventures into religion, world religion, first I was trying to find out what was the “right” religion. Then later, I began to say, “Well, what if all of them are right, but perhaps incomplete?” It’s almost like some Christian ministers would tell this parable of the blind men and the elephant. There were apparently four blind men and they were trying to describe an elephant based on how it felt. One would touch the elephant’s side and say, “The elephant is like a wall.” One would touch the tail and say, “The elephant is like a snake.” One would touch an ear and say, “The elephant is like big leaf.” And I came to the conclusion that basically religions were like these individual blind men trying to describe God, which was not something they could fathom — it was beyond the power of the mind.
Therefore, what I was trying to do was find the commonality between all of these religions, and I found that it was letting go. If you’re a Christian, then you believe in God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You give all of your love and faith and devotion to God, and when you pray, if you really believe, you let it go. And it’s the letting go that creates.
That’s what I discovered by rolling dice. If you are a Buddhist and you believe that all of this is an illusion — that really there is no self beyond the thought and that this is really kind of like God’s play, it’s like a dream — then of course you let it go, because it’s not real anyway. If you are Muslim, and Muslims primarily believe in total submission to the will of Allah, then of course if you totally submit, you have to let it go. Of course, there are devout people in every religion and there are hypocrites in every religion, but I’m talking about the devout ones. If you truly believe in Islam, then you submit to the will of Allah and you have to let go. In terms of your hopes and your dreams and your aspirations, you have to make them secondary. That’s what I found was the commonality. By learning to let go in life, it has transformed my life. That started at MIT, my fascination with politics and my investigation of the divine. I stayed at MIT till ’74. I was a house tutor over at McCormick. September of ’74 is when I left, and I stayed in Boston for another year, working at General Electric.
You stayed in the area quite a long time.
Yes, from ’68 to ’75. After the whole political thing at MIT, it came down to personal things, which it always does — how am I going to be of service to the black community? Later, my focus started to enlarge to basically people who were the have-nots in this world, not just black people. Actually, I don’t believe in race anymore, but that’s another story. I saw a sign on a DC bus last year that said it best —“Race is an illusion, racism is real.”
Anyway, there was a group of guys whom I met through a conference of the Black Engineers. They were connected with the Sixth Pan-African Congress, which was held, I think, in ’74 — it might have been ’73 — over in Dar es Salaam. Out of that, there was a group involved in science and technology, and the idea was to help emerging countries — primarily black, but also Caribbean and Central American countries — gain independence from the Eastern and Western powers, because they realized that both the United States and Europe were using them for their natural resources and also for their labor. The Eastern Bloc was doing the same thing, and they wanted to gain control over their own countries. As these countries were getting their political independence, they also wanted to gain their economic independence. They found that what they needed — where we could come into play, or we thought we could — was our providing them with technical support and technical expertise.
So they formed a group called the Skills Bank, and the idea was to work for a minimum two-year stint in a developing country and provide them with technical expertise. We were kind of politically naive. We didn’t realize there were a lot of forces over there who didn’t want us to succeed. We were getting sabotaged, we later found out. I put in an application to go to Tanzania, when I got out of MIT in ’72. My going to graduate school was a delaying tactic to avoid a 9-to-5, because while I was waiting on this application to come through, I said, “Well, I’ve got to do something, and I don’t want to go out and work.” That’s how I ended up getting my advanced degree. But it later turned out that there were people over there working with Alcoa and Reynolds Aluminum — there’s a lot of bauxite in Eastern Africa, which is used in the production of aluminum — and sabotaging our whole project. They didn’t want us to come. They were getting paid by Reynolds, and if we came over there and were successful in establishing an aluminum manufacturing facility that was independent of Reynolds and Alcoa, then they would be out of a job. They were wise enough to realize that, so they were trying- ing to sabotage our projects. We thought people on the other side were trying to help us, but in fact, a lot of them were screwing us.
That project never got off the ground. There were a couple in West Africa, a couple in East Africa, and then the whole politics in Central Africa. We had a lot of good ideas. Also, in terms of ourselves, a couple of people who did go over there — not only were we politically naive, we were not, I think, technically ready. We were essentially young guys who had just gotten our degrees. But you don’t know enough to teach anything if you just have an education. To be effective, we needed some experience as well in what we were doing.
But the bottom line is, I ended up working at General Electric in Lynn, Mass. I was in the aircraft engine group doing vibration analysis, computer programming mostly, doing finite element analysis on a twisted blade. I designed compressors. I did that for about a year and a half, and then I said, “Fuck this.” I felt like I was helping the enemy, because I was working on military aircraft that were being used to support governments like South Africa, Chile, and Nicaragua that I totally did not agree with — or dictators around the world that I couldn’t see helping, even though I didn’t see a way at that point of stopping them. I was trying to figure out how to change my career — and this is actually the Buddhist part of it, in terms of the eight-fold path, to make your livelihood reflect your values and not just be a method of earning money to survive. That’s when I decided to go back to school, and I went to Stanford in ’75–’76.
What did you have in mind when you went to Stanford?
Well, I still liked automatic control, but I was going to use it for medical purposes. At that time, we thought biomedical engineering was the wave of the future. That turned out not to be the case, but that’s what I was going to do — biomedical engineering. I would still be able to use my automatic control/computer science background, as well as my jack-of-all-trades kind of thing — a little electrical, a little mechanical. Then I’d add some physiology to that and do biomedical, and hopefully work with some type of industry that was trying to help people instead of trying to kill them, which was pretty much what I was doing with the military, by working with different industries that supported the military, like GE. It later turned out, after I got my master’s from Stanford in ’77 and went down to USC to complete the Ph.D., that I ended up dropping out of there after a year. I never completed that Ph.D., mainly because I could see that all the guys who were finishing in biomed were going back to teaching, or they were working in some hospital just in procurement.
I had a lot of ideas for different projects, and I was trying to get some support. I was writing applications for grants to the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and all those places. See, I wanted to become independent so that I could pursue my political objectives. But, of course, I needed to get financially independent. I wanted to still work at my own speed, work in my garage and come up with stuff and get some grants to support me while I was doing this. Maybe I would come up with something, get it manufactured, and make a million dollars.
That was my plan, but I kept getting turned down for these grants. I had made some contacts at NSF and with some of the people in DC and in New York, and was trying to find out who was getting these grants that I kept getting turned down for. I found out they were people who had both the engineering background as well as the medical. That’s how I ended up going to medical school.
Actually, I was in a big quandary then. That was at the end of my time at Stanford, which was in ’77, and Sam Denard, MIT ’74, was recruiting at that time for NASA. They were looking for a black astronaut. That’s how he got Ron McNair. He had come to MIT, and basically they were looking for black astronauts. They wanted somebody who was physically fit and who had at least a master’s in engineering. Basically, I fit the bill. But the problem was that you had to join the military, and I said, “Oh no . . .” But Ron joined, and everybody knows what happened to him. Mae Jemison was a sophomore at Stanford at the time, and we were all recruited at the same time.
I almost went in that direction. I said, “Man, that would be a trip, to go out in space.” But I decided instead that I was going to go ahead and try to do my independence thing, and try to continue with my political ideas. So I decided to stay with biomedical engineering, and went down to USC instead of going to Houston. If I could have done it part-time, I would have done it. Anyway, my biomedical career never worked out, because I found out that companies who manufacture biomedical equipment don’t want a jack-of-all-trades guy like me. In the back of their mind, they were interpreting that as “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” The way they manufactured the biomedical equipment was that they would create a project team, usually consisting of an electrical engineer, a computer scientist, a physiologist, and a mechanical engineer. Then they would design this thing, make a couple of prototypes, and try to sell it. But they didn’t want one guy to do the entire design.
I wanted to get a grant to work on different projects, so that’s why I went to medical school — to enable me to do that. In the process of going to medical school, I surprised myself and became interested in medicine. It seems ironic, when I think about all the stuff in my background that led me up to that point. It turned out to be the perfect career for me.
In medicine, I started out in general surgery. I did that a couple of years, and then I started working in the ER. That’s what I do now — I’m an ER doc, an emergency physician. I’ve been an emergency physician for over twelve years now in Southern California. I work right now at a hospital in Placentia, which is a small suburban hospital. Then there’s another one, Anaheim Memorial. I’m an independent contractor, so I work around. I also work for the sheriff ’s department at the jail. Anaheim Memorial is a little bigger hospital, sort of in a changing area. It’s sort of a Hispanic area and there are a bunch of freeways, near Anaheim and Disneyland. You get a lot of the gang violence and auto accidents, and because the Hispanic community is relatively young, you have a lot of obstetrics and pediatrics.
Also, you get a lot of elderly people with various medical problems. But working in ER, I think, allows me to use my math, my science, my spirituality, my ability to talk to people from various backgrounds, and my need to try to be helpful to people. I couldn’t have planned it better.
So in your striving to be independent, you ended up doing that.
Yes, and also at the same time making a contribution where I can help people. I still am involved in activities on the side. I work with a group, AAP- SOC, the African-American Parents of South Orange County. Incidentally, I am a parent. We have two kids and my wife and I have been married for eleven years now. I have a son, Kyle, who’s eight and a daughter, Nicole, who’s five. Plus, I have two older sons from back in my MIT days. Shawn is twenty-eight and Paul is thirty-one. As a matter of fact, Shawn just got married last summer. He’s in Virginia and he’s trying to become an investment analyst. Naturally, I turned him on to my classmate Warren Shaw, who worked for Citicorp for twenty-four years before he went independent and got his millions. I just saw him. He ended up marrying Inez Hope, MIT ’73, one of the women who was one of my residents when I was house tutor at McCormick.
My oldest son, Paul, is in Indiana and he’s a real estate broker. He was not the academic type. He started at Indiana University and ended up dropping out, doing this and that. I guess he did sort of inherit that from me. He was doing catering for a while, this and that, and he finally got into real estate. I can see a little bit of the different sides in my two younger kids. Nicole will be six in October and Kyle is eight. Nicole is the athlete, very protective and the “mother” to all of her friends — just like her mom. Kyle is the thinker and the artist, and also sensitive. He’s a performer, actually, and that was always part of me. When I look back on it, not only did MIT open a lot of doors for me, it also gave me the ability to think rigorously. That’s applicable not only to science and engineering, but to life in general.
Overall, you’re saying that you feel very positive about your experience?
Oh, yes. I think my years at MIT, when I look back on them, were one of the highlights of my life.
Of all the things you’ve done?
Yes, of all the things I’ve done, the years at MIT were the highlight of my life. It has shaped my life. The things I started back then, I didn’t necessarily finish them, but when I look at what are the important things in my life now — what I like to do — MIT was the motivator. Well, the family part was not, because I was spending my time in those days running around with a whole lot of different women. But in a sense that was instrumental too. I was married then for about ten months. I did that running around, and it helped me get that out of my system and be comfortable with my manhood. I think in some ways a lot of guys who end up getting married and running around and messing up their families, it’s their alter ego and they haven’t gotten that part out of their system. The political things I started back then I have carried on to this day. I’m still interested in the struggles that are going on around the world, and I keep track of those things. I’m working with two groups right now. I mentioned AAPSOC. It’s suburban — this is Orange County, John Wayne/Nixon country. That’s where I live. But there are a number of black people in this area too, and we try to keep them together both at a political and social level. Then there’s a group called Adopt-A-Neighbor that I work with. Basically, we provide food and free medical services or referrals to the poor people and the homeless. That’s what I do now.
I also meditate. I’ve been practicing TM, transcendental meditation, for about twenty-four years now. I try to keep my mind empty, alert, and active. It has to be clear when I work in the ER. People get wild and everything’s hectic, and there are screaming patients, families, and nurses and everything. I try to keep my center to keep calm and to keep my priorities straight — life and death before pain, before fear, before economics — and to try to keep my ego, but not my emotions, out of it.
Based on all the experience you’ve had since your Institute days, what advice would you give to a young black student coming to a place like MIT for the first time?
I would say to basically follow your “druthers,” follow what you would rather do at any particular time, but realize that it’s going to change. A lot of people, maybe because of influences from parents and friends, come in as a freshman and say, “I’m going to be this,” and then they feel an obligation to stick to it, even though their interests change as they get exposure to this and that. I’m saying, go with those changes — whatever you’re interested in at the moment, do that. What you will end up doing may not be what you had planned, but it’s what you should do. I think everyone has a purpose in life and there’s no way for us to know that in the beginning, or even at the end sometimes.
This is more in keeping with my philosophy of today, of trying to live for today — live one day at a time, instead of spending so much of your life in the future or in the past. And put a hundred percent of yourself into whatever you’re doing at that moment. If you are trying to do a problem set in 5.01, then put yourself a hundred percent into that problem set. The same if you are listening to a lecture. If you’re out at a party, then party a hundred percent — don’t be thinking about the problem set, let it go. Do whatever you’re doing a hundred percent, and do what you’re interested in. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give any thought for tomorrow, but I’m just saying, concentrate on today. Then, whatever you end up doing will be what you were supposed to do, instead of trying to plan everything out.
Also, practice listening to that still small voice inside. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate from the ego, but with practice you’ll get better. I think one of the reasons I’m basically living the life I should be living — even though I wouldn’t have planned it this way, it’s worked out perfectly — is because I was versatile. I did this and that. Eventually I found my career, even though it took me a long time. I didn’t actually become an emergency physician until I finished my residency in ’93. I was forty-three years old before I ended up in that, although I started working in emergency before that, in around ’86 or ’87.
I never would have planned it. All these ideas and dreams about what I was going to do — working in engineering in Africa and developing industries — at least that’s what I thought my life was going to be. But I think because I was open to different things, I ended up in what I was supposed to do, which is the ER. I love doing what I do. I would do it even if I didn’t get paid. Not many people, I think, are that lucky. I look around at other people, even other physicians I work with, and they hate it. They hate what they do. They spend most of the time in the doctor’s lounge looking at the ticker tape, following their investments. Trying to get enough to retire is what they’re doing. They hate what they’re doing. Because somebody told them a long time ago that they ought to be a doctor, they went ahead and did that, but now they don’t like it. They’re working a job they can’t stand and half of them are living with a woman they can’t stand. Their lives are miserable, even though they’re basically financially secure. But coming from very poor beginnings, I’m lucky. I realized long ago that my sense of well- being had nothing to do with how much money I had in my pocket. Sometimes I’ve had money, and a lot of times I haven’t had money. Really, my happiness was not related to that. But most people, whether rich or poor, have always been that way. The poor think money will solve their problems and rich folks are so afraid of losing their financial security.
Also, I would say, try to discover your sense of the divine. There is a need in humans, not necessarily to worship but to search for the divine. Different people find it in different ways. Find the higher power, something that will sustain you in times of difficulty and hardship. The nature of life is to change. You have to find a way, something to hold onto, through all the changes that are going to happen in your life. Start that early. I don’t think there is any one answer for everybody, but I think what- ever that answer is for you, you have to establish a personal relationship and make it a part of your life. But I would also say, don’t force it. If you don’t have a drive to find it, then let it go and don’t let other people talk you into stuff. It will come. Whatever you have a drive to do, do that. As a matter of fact, I find that most people tend to get a spiritual drive in their thirties. I think a lot of times when they do it in their teens, they’re just putting on a show, trying to pretend like they’re something that they’re not. But when you feel the urge to search, then do that search. Don’t let the parents you love or your teachers or people you respect lead you in terms of this religious search. Everyone has to find it for themselves. Whatever you find will be real. I am convinced that there is only one God, but no matter how you find him, it will be the same God as long as you are sincere. So that would be my only advice — let it go, search, and do the best job you can each day.
I’m reminded of a comment that “Jinx,” Yolanda Hinton, said about you. You remember her? She said you were the smartest person she ever knew, because you were playing chess and driving the car at the same time going down to Cape Cod.
Of course I remember “Jinx,” but I was not the chess player. That was Larry Dean and Tony Gellineau. I wanted to play chess, but the problem was I never had an urge to study it. They studied it, and they were good at it. I played chess badly.
Larry was one of the guys who definitely was there all along. We shadowed each other. He was involved in the BSU; as a matter of fact, he was the co-chair after me. He was also involved down at “The Ghetto.” We used to party together. I was at his wedding in ’95. We lost touch for a number of years. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, I lost touch with a lot of people. I was doing a lot of introspection, looking inward. But then I started coming back out in the middle ’80s, and finding people. Larry was one of the first people I looked up. He is one of the people I would consider a life-long friend.
He’s still a very straightforward guy and he tells you the way he sees it. I’ve always liked him for that. He worked at MIT for a while, as you may know.
Yes. I’ve always respected him. In some ways, we were different but we were the same. I was a little wilder during those days. I experimented with marijuana and all that, and he would never touch the stuff. He would never put any alcohol to his lips or anything like that — straitlaced. But yet he was wild when it came to physical things. He was our enforcer.
Do you have any suggestions you would make to the administration about how to improve or enhance the experience of blacks at MIT?
Things have changed quite a bit, and I know that students these days are not that interested in activism. I saw one son going through Indiana University, and my other son went to Old Dominion. It’s like, “Oh man, they don’t seem to be interested in anything. They’re not interested in studying, they’re not interested in partying, they’re not interested in politics.” But I think if you can give them a good background at least, and get them interested in trying to help each other in whatever they’re trying to do, that would be good. In most cases, I think they tend to be more career-oriented than we were.
But even as far as the networking that they would be interested in, I think the important thing is to give the students a forum for an outlet and also a way that they can communicate with each other, even after they leave. I think BAMIT is really good for that, even though I have not been that active. I am a life member, but I just haven’t been that active in BAMIT. There needs to be a forum for interaction between former students and current students.
When I went back to the twenty-fifth reunion at MIT, the focus was World War II. It really made me proud. Initially, I saw these old men out there doing “the bump” and everything, and I was saying, “Who are these guys?” Then later I found out they were Tuskegee Airmen, and that most of them had gone through Course XVI. It was just great talking to them, and it gave me a sense of pride seeing the things they had gone through and what had happened in their lives. Just the forum of being able to communicate with them made me feel good. I think that for certain students who will be coming along in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be one of those old men out there. Those young kids are going to wonder who I was. Then it would be great just for us to be able to talk and share experiences and to communicate across generations. It gives you a sense of perspective.
I think that right now I’m in a retrospective mode. I started doing my family tree, getting our family history together. We were sort of split apart by a lot of things. I’m looking not just at my immediate family, but finding out about the old generations in the past, the things they’ve gone through, so that I can give my children a sense of their heritage and what we’ve gone through.
It’s so ironic, like I mentioned before, that a lot of my stuff was involved in the black movement and now I’m not that much a proponent of race. I’m more into helping people who need help, and people who are what I call the have-nots in society.
Regardless of who they are?
Right. I see race now as an artificial designation. Even when I look at my family tree, one side of it — the Daileys — actually started from a German. His name was Tetley and he changed it to Dailey. He was German and he got together with this Indian woman slave. I have German and Indian and black in me. For me to deny any part of that is actually denying the truth. It may not be something to be proud of, but it’s the truth. It’s kind of like what Tiger Woods is saying, even though people got down on him for saying it. He’s saying, “I’m not going to dishonor my mother and ignore that part of my heritage.” His mother is Filipino or Thai. He says,“To ask me what I am, I can’t say that I’m either of those, but yet I’m all of those.”
I think it’s important for people to have a sense of history, of where they came from and the people who came before them. As far as MIT goes, I hope they can facilitate that by supporting groups like BAMIT and also promoting some interaction between groups. Because I was in an activist era at MIT, we were definitely involved in our education and in our community. I think it’s important for people, even though this is probably more of a quiet time for everybody, still to be involved in their own education. Then you’ll get more out of it.