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Legacy of Endurance

How I Remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

by Roland B. Smith Jr., Associate Provost, Rice University 

Each year during Black History Month, countless references are made to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. We find numerous ways to honor him and debate the status of his dream for justice and equality. While made in earnest, I fear that the volume of these observances tends to dwarf the profound meaning of his life’s work.

 

I had the honor of serving on the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday Commission in 1994. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1984, the commission’s mission was to promote the observance of Dr. King’s birthday, which became a national holiday in 1986. While the commission encouraged states to officially recognize Dr. King’s birthday, it also advocated for observances to become a day of service. Since the commission’s disbandment in 1996, the push to use Dr. King’s birthday as a day of service has diminished and reports of such activity are rare. With each passing year, fewer and fewer of us fully appreciate Dr. King’s impact on the world, which compels me to reflect on the deep and personal impact he has had on my life. 

My inspirational connection to Dr. King began with my serendipitous participation in “The March on Washington” in August of 1963. I was about to start my junior year of high school and my church had agreed to open as a comfort station for the throngs of marchers who traveled from across the country to participate. As a member of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, I had volunteered to help at the church. My mother was worried for my safety and agreed to let me assist in the volunteer efforts as long as I would not go to the march. After listening to the marchers’ powerful stories, I decided to go with them to the Lincoln Memorial. It was one the few times that I disobeyed my mother. 

The experience of being among the mass of people and the chorus of voices was surreal and uplifting. It gave me an almost indescribable sense of pride for those who came from places far away. That peaceful protest gave me hope for America and personal determination to seek social change.

 

Dr. King’s inspirational influence on me resurfaced while I was in my junior year at Bowie State College. I was serving as president of the Student Government Association and the college’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Bowie, the oldest of the three historically Black institutions, was part of the old segregated Maryland State College system.  

In the spring of 1968, things began to heat on campus when students learned that then Governor Spiro Agnew had partially funded the College’s capital budget thus preventing physical plant improvements. A series of meetings with college and state officials proved fruitless. After Agnew reneged to meet with the students on two occasions, we drafted a list of 37 grievances to deliver to the governor and chartered buses to transport 230 students to the Maryland State House. A few faculty members, a NAACP field staff member, and an attorney accompanied us.

 

We arrived at the State House on April 4. The events that afternoon began with proclamations from the governor’s aid that “the governor was not in and could not be reached.” Threats of arrest were made. For the next few hours, we deliberated the pros and cons of backing down from Agnew yet one more time. Members of the student leadership team indicated that they would support my decision. Feeling that we had to take a stand, I decided to stay — along with 227 other students.

 

Shortly after 5 p.m., the building superintendent declared the building, filled with media and spectators, closed. We were the only people declared as trespassers, but agreed not to resist arrest or invoke violence. I was the first student arrested. We were taken to the county jail and, once photographed and fingerprinted, males and females were placed in two separate riot cells. The events of the prior weeks had taken their toll, leaving me more exhausted than frightened. I fell asleep on one of the floor mattresses. 

I was awakened suddenly by a fellow student. He shouted, “Roland! Roland! They killed Martin Luther King!” At that moment, a sense of rage jerked its way through my body. I had never felt such anger. As we sat helpless in that riot cell lamenting the sad state of affairs, I concluded that if we abandoned the strategy of nonviolent social change, Dr. King would have died in vain. At that very moment, I made a commitment to myself to pursue nonviolent social and educational change wherever I found myself. 

Yes, I remember Martin. I remember that his words inspired me. I remember that his actions called me to stand up for justice. Forty years after his death, I remember that his life called me to serve. 

 

How I remember MLK

Roland B. Smith Jr., Ed.D., is associate provost and adjunct professor of sociology and education certification at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
 

Reprinted from Texas Diversity Magazine