Residents remember impact of historic King speech on its 50th anniversary
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org August 27, 2013 5:10PM
With members of "Boys II Men" standing with him, Clayton Muhammad addresses the audience after being named Aurora's Outstanding African-American for 2013 on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. | Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 29, 2013 6:42AM
Fred Rodgers had just celebrated his 18th birthday and had moved from Alabama to Chicago when he watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the evening news at a church conference.
The TV set was a black and white, Rodgers recalls, but it might as well have been in color, “it was that vivid.”
The Civil Rights Movement had already lit the fire of this young man who had grown up attending rallies and listening to the stories of family friend Abraham Lincoln Woods, the organizer behind all of King’s marches, including the historical gathering Aug. 28, 1963.
But that speech King made in front of the Lincoln Memorial a half-century ago transcended “any other emotion I had ever felt,” says Rodgers, retired director of youth services for the City of Aurora. “There was a feeling of new hope not seen before.”
King’s speech, its 50th anniversary celebrated today, impacted Rodgers so profoundly “it was like rolling thunder,” he recalls. “And it shaped my entire life.”
‘It had to be done’
For Lillian Perry, it was as much Dr. King’s voice as his words that resonated so profoundly with the then 28-year-old single mom from Aurora working long hours in a Geneva nursing home.
“I understand what he was saying,” she says of that televised speech that pundits and historians agree shaped modern America. “And I knew why it had to be done.”
That’s because from the time she was a teenager delivering “separate but equal” petitions to the backwater homes in her native Terrell County, Ga., Perry, too, had been a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Even after she’d moved north to Aurora years later, she felt the sting of discrimination: when landlords would not rent to blacks; when banks refused to loan money because of skin color; when the only place in town that served both races was a small café in a downtown Walgreens.
By the time King stepped in front of that crowd of 250,000 people in ’63, this young mom had bought her first home, her first car. But she knew the fight would be a long one.
“All we wanted was equality,” she says. “When people did the judging, we wanted it to be fair.”
It would probably come as no surprise Perry and Rodgers spent most of their lives after moving to Aurora continuing that fight for our community’s most vulnerable.
It should also come as no surprise both local activists are disappointed in the progress that has been made.
“Fifty years later,” laments Rodgers, “we are still talking about the same issues.”
Back then, Perry noted, racism was more overt. Now, “it has gone underground,” making it more insidious and harder to combat. At the same time, government has become so big, so politicized, there are no strong black leaders to take on the challenges still facing this country.
But progress won’t come from political leadership, they insist. You can legislate all you want, says Perry. Change will only come when hearts are open and “they begin to soften.”
“There was an old German woman, a doctor’s mother, who wanted nothing to do with me” because of the color of her skin, Perry recalls of her years in the nursing home. “But I was the only one who would make sauerkraut for her.”
And over time the doctor’s mom “began to see me as a person, then as a friend and equal.”
Paying it forward
Henry Cowherd, who worked in manufacturing and eventually became the first black to serve on the East Aurora School Board, “didn’t pay a lot of attention to King’s speech” back in 1963, but says the reverend’s words began to resonate with him the more he became involved in community advocacy.
“If we don’t focus on education,” says the 89-year-old Auroran who has Cowherd Middle School named in his honor, “then we are going backwards.”
Rodgers, who also has a school — Rodgers Magnet Academy — that bears his name, agrees, adding that the hope for this country lies with the generations that know King only through history books — and through the examples of others.
“Young people are much more in touch with Dr. King’s teachings than adults,” he says. “Kids are moving in the right direction and willing to do what is right.”
Both he and Cowherd point to Clayton Muhammad, director of communications for the City of Aurora, as the perfect example of how change will come about.
Unlike the other black leaders, Muhammad was not alive when the Dream speech was given. Raised in the Aurora housing projects by a single mom, Muhammad credits strong mentors for changing his life, including Charles Ponquinette, East Aurora’s former superintendent who, like Cowherd and Rodgers, left such a powerful legacy, the building housing East’s ROTC program bears his name.
Ponquinette, who grew up in Mobile, Ala. during the Civil Rights Era, was much like Dr. King in that he emphasized education and community involvement, notes Muhammad. And the seeds planted from the Movement were passed along to Muhammad, who in turn is sowing them among younger generations through his successful Boys II Men mentoring program and powerful motivational speeches.
“We must pay it forward,” says Muhammad, “and make way for the next generation of young leaders to take the stage, both nationally and locally.”
While all four black leaders expressed disappointment in the progress made since King’s speech, they choose to focus on the positive. While grim statistics indicate a third of young black men will end up in the penal system, notes Muhammad, “why not shine the light on the two-thirds who will not?”
Likewise, putting the spotlight on King’s words during this 50th anniversary can’t help but make connections across all generations. The cry still rings out, for jobs and for justice, most certainly. And, while Dr. Martin Luther King’s work is far from completed, these strong leaders quietly remind us that as long as his words are not forgotten, there is hope.