HOPE – The intersections between the lives of 10 local residents and the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have spanned decades to produce lessons about Dr. King’s dream of racial harmony and civic integrity which endure.
The Black History Month discussion at Yerger Middle School on Feb. 20 focused upon “Perspectives on the Dream” as they were realized for each panel member either growing up in Hope, or now living or working here.
Moderator Eighth Judicial District Judge Randy Wright laid the foundation for the discussion by noting that King’s speech was delivered after a century of neglect of freedoms guaranteed to black Americans by the U. S. Constitution.
“For one hundred years, our country basically ignored those amendments,” Wright said.
King’s speech was a defining moment for the legacy of civil rights in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he said.
“I do not believe that would have happened without this speech,” Wright said.
Prefaced by an historical presentation by Mike Simpson, President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace National Parks Service Training Specialist, the hour-long discussion was sponsored by the Hope Public Schools.
Former Hope Mayor Floyd Young said he was a prime example of how those lessons came into practice in his life, although Young never personally heard King speak… and, had not taken an opportunity to do so in his senior year at Arkansas AM&N College (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in Pine Bluff.
King was scheduled to deliver the baccalaureate address to the senior class in the summer of 1963.
“I was struggling with some things,” Young said. “I planned on going home and getting a job.”
Seeking work in Hempstead County prior to becoming a teacher, Young said he began to see first-hand how the discriminations charged against American society in 1963 worked in daily life.
“That’s when I first started paying attention to what Dr. Martin Luther King had to say,” Young noted.
Later, in his first teaching position at Marked Tree, it occurred to him what the “split session” school year meant for black students.
“In the summer, when the cotton was ready, the black students would be picking cotton,” Young said. “I started reading more about what Dr. Martin Luther King said.”
Those lessons embedded in the Black Baptist tradition of King’s ministerial work still ring true panelist Tarona Armstrong said.
“If you look at the speech, he was fighting for voting rights, housing, work,” Armstrong, superintendent of the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site, National Parks Service, said.
“We’re still doing that work right now, tonight, discussing this,” she said.
King’s “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last” quotation from the Black spiritual song was pivotal to the message across ethnic boundaries, Hope High School business teacher Sheila Hopson said.
“It’s a wonderful song,” Hopson said. “Sometimes, for something to happen, you have to say it out loud.”
HHS junior Davionna Perkins said the quotation represented the almost prophetic spirit which King embodied.
“He had hope,” Perkins said.
King’s initial theme in what was originally planned as a four-minute speech revolved around what he characterized as the “uncashed check” given blacks by the “bank of justice” in America.
“I believe what he was talking about is that black people and white people, the blacks didn’t have the same opportunities as the white people,” Charity Baptist Church Pastor Jessie Henry observed. “I think that’s what he was saying about their not receiving a fair share of opportunity.”
Simpson offered a stark illustration.
“I was going to grade school in Mobile County, Alabama,” Simpson said. “When we would see the buses coming in there would be a yellow one, another yellow one, and then a blue one. And, the blue one was the black kids.”
Simpson said he did not understand the difference, noting he thought it might be nice to ride a blue bus rather than the same yellow bus as everyone else.
“I never really understood the magnitude of the concept that if the black kids wanted to ride to school, they had to ride in the blue bus,” he said.
Armstrong agreed with Henry’s assessment.
“I think, over the years, the question has been: Are we upholding what is in the Constitution of the United States?” she said.
Perhaps, the most famous line in the speech, where King refers to his children and looks to the time when they will not be judged “…by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” evoked a generational observation from Hope High School Career Coach Kayla Jones.
Jones said she learned much of King’s legacy from stories related by her father about the era.
“You have to realize that I wasn’t even thought of back then,” Jones quipped. “So, I didn’t have a great understanding, but I could put two and two together.”
King emphasized that a divided America could not survive, noting, “We cannot walk alone;” which required vigilance against self-satisfaction for both blacks and whites.
Former Hope Mayor Dennis Ramsey noted the generation of segregation in Hope has since passed from the scene; but, the import of King’s speech and mark upon the national conscience was not taught to his generation when he was in high school.
“The speech was never discussed in class,” Ramsey said.
He cautioned against regression brought about by self-satisfaction, noting the need for change was instilled in his generation as it became part of the leadership of civic life in Hope.
“We can’t go back; we’ve got a ways to go; but, we’ve come a long way,” Ramsey said.
Rev. Henry pointed out King worked in Memphis, Tenn., in support of black sanitation workers, taking a risk where many others might not have done so.
“He didn’t have to go to Memphis,” he said. “If he didn’t go, who would have cared about those sanitation workers?”
Everyone agreed there is no equal to King now in the national dialogue on civil rights.
“You’re not going to find someone with the same charisma and the same mentality,” Hope Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart point out.
Dr. Hart said King’s arrest in Birmingham, Ala., compounded the impact of the 1963 speech in what was, at the time, a crucial presidential election year.
“Everyone that was arrested with him was released within 24 hours,” Hart said.
Senator John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, the eventual winner of the presidency, contacted King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and learned first-hand the issues which led to the development of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Had Mister Kennedy not taken that step, I don’t know what might have happened,” Hart added. “But, there are others.”
The “others,” Hart said must be everyone, ready to speak out against social injustice.
“But, if we don’t find those people who will speak for the little guy, eventually, those same issues will come to life,” he said. “I’m not trying to be a fear-monger; but, we have to speak up for the little guy.”
Armstrong pointed to the “Little Rock Nine,” who as teenagers were the students to bring integration to Little Rock Central High School, and today remain as the ambassadors of that cause.
“They, still today, are working on our behalf,” she said.
Henry said King spoke in visionary terms.
“His dream was a vision from God that he had,” he said. “There are people out there, but they are afraid to make history.”
Henry said there are personal roles each American must play in bringing King’s “dream” to fruition.
“I think in our everyday lives we can be negative or positive,” he said.
He pointed to the integration of Hope High School as an example.
“All the other schools in the area had problems; we never had a problem,” Henry said. “We never had a problem, black and white. We had a championship football team that brought the school together.”
But, it was Young who brought the conclusion home to everyone in quoting Scripture.
“Parents have to tell their children the truth,” he said. “Speak the truth. ‘And, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’”