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John Eggers: Dr. King’s dream still resonates

Where were you on Aug. 28, 1963?

I remember that it was a warm Wednesday in Minnesota not unlike it has been in this area lately. It was my custom to go home for lunch while working at my hometown Red Owl store. I had worked there part time since I was in seventh-grade. I was now a sophomore at Mankato State College.

I don’t remember what I had for lunch, probably a piece of fresh bakery bread folded around a slice of bologna. I do remember turning on the television and resting on the sofa in our den to see a mass of people gathered around Memorial Park in Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking.

The 1960s began pretty quietly compared to what was about to happen in America at the end of the decade. Yes, the Cuban Missile crisis woke everyone up to how a cold war could become very hot in a matter of days. We elected a Catholic president, which, as John F. Kennedy explained, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

As was reported many times over, the Kennedys ushered in a period known as Camelot. It represented a quiet, almost make believe silence before the storm broke.

As did many of you, I grew up in rural Minnesota. We had no African-Americans in my school and there were few at Mankato State. About the only time we even mentioned African Americans in my high school’s history class was when the history teacher reminded us that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. That was about it. Like Jack Webb on the popular television program, “Dragnet,” we just stuck with the facts.

As I grew older, I often wondered why we talked so little about social issues, whether they were about African-Americans, Native Americans or women’s rights or even poverty. I don’t fault my instructors too much; I don’t think they had much knowledge about the issues and, like the people in my hometown and in most other small Minnesota towns, there was little interest in discussing them because there were more important issues like the corn crop, the Friday night football game, how the garden was doing and what the ladies were serving at the church supper this month.

I really didn’t know what to make of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I know I was awed by his power of speaking and by the number of people gathered around him. Where this would all lead or where it would all end, I didn’t give it much thought. I was not in tune to what was happening outside my little world in rural Minnesota. I could not put the pieces together.

Mankato State was pretty much an all-white college where the nickname for the athletic teams was “Indians.” (Mankato State would be one of the first schools in the U.S. to change its name to Mavericks to avoid racial overtones.) If social issues were discussed, I did not join in. For me, listening to Buddy Holly was more important.

The fact that I remember the March on Washington says something about its impact on me. It must have lit a spark. What was this all about?

I suppose if there would be any event that triggered action toward equal rights for all minorities as well as women’s rights, the March on Washington represented a catalyst for change. A few days after the march, Dr. King met with the president. Things had gone too far for politicians to ignore what blacks were saying.

Many thought the march would trigger mass violence in the streets and hundreds of extra police were on duty. Even President Kennedy was worried. It turned out to be a non-violent march and non-violence prevailed to the amazement of everyone. Non-violence was Dr. King’s mantra and it worked to perfection on this historic day.

What did the March on Washington mean for America? First, it demonstrated again how one man, how one black man could change the course of human history. Change has to start someplace and with someone who can mobilize people. Sometimes we are led to believe that one person cannot make a difference. On Aug. 28, 1963, this belief was forever buried.

Second, if so many black people and white people were mingling, holding hands and singing, and marching, then maybe some good would result that would make us an even better America, which it did.

Third, the march made us more aware of other injustices. We began to question our treatment toward the poor, toward women, toward Native Americans and Hispanics. We thought we needed to do better.

Fourth, many of us dealt the march in our own personal way. For me it was joining the Peace Corps in Uruguay, teaching in Iran and later working in the inner city of Camden, N.J., and later yet on the reservations of northern Minnesota. For others it may have meant becoming an activist, running for public office, working in a community action group and becoming involved in community development, teaching in the inner city, reading or writing or just speaking up more about injustice.

Yes, the March on Washington had a huge impact on America and the world. Even though the end of the 1960’s would be very tumultuous at home and abroad (there would be riots in the Camden streets where I worked and my classmates would be killed in Vietnam), once again America survived only to become not only a stronger nation but also a more well-informed, intelligent nation.

At one point in Dr. King’s speech, singer Mahalia Jackson urged him to “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” At this point Dr. King left his notes and began the memorable “I have a dream” parts of his speech: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

As a result of a march in the nation’s capital 50 years ago men and women are more equal than ever before. Because we are a more intelligent nation, we should add, “It’s important to keep the dream alive and live out its true meaning.”

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.