I Had Never Heard Anything Like This
John N. Gardner
This week I will be joining millions of my fellow Americans in recalling and inwardly celebrating the significant milestone that Martin Luther King’s speech to the March on Washington represented in late August of 1963. I was a very impressionable 19 years old and was about to start my junior year in college. I had a summer job in Hillside New Jersey, in a very racially integrated factory, making beer and soda cans, but not a drop to drink—a real torture for a college kid. I was driving on the Garden State Parkway to my shift and listening to the opening of the speech. Not more than a paragraph into it, I knew that I had never heard anything like this before. Not being a multi-tasker like my students today, I had to pull off the Parkway and do nothing but listen to the speech. It still rings in my ears.
As context, I would want my readers to know that two years before I had taken my college’s only required course: Speech 101. And my grade in the course was a D. But I had learned enough to know a very special speech when I heard it.
Because I had had a political science professor in my first year of college that got me to become a daily reader of The New York Times, (believe it or not I surreptitiously took The Times into the plant every day to read on my two breaks—I never saw any other steelworker reading that paper—instead they all read The New York Daily News, which carried the daily “scratch sheet” so the workers could place their bets on the horses!), I was able to read for myself the next day the complete text of the speech. It was some of the most moving and evocative prose I had ever read.
As I read the speech I could hear Dr. King’s voice. I can still hear his voice. I can still see his words. I still read his words now and then. The metaphoric images they conjured up for me will always be with me. This speech, this courageous leader, helped show me the way to try to make a difference for others in my own life. His words gave me a vision for a better America— a vision I still have in spite of the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act, enacted two years after Dr. King’s speech in 1963, and not coincidentally.
I was different that fall when I returned to college. I was more serious. I was more compassionate. I was more liberal. I was more reflective. I had a vision for my country that I had not had before. This was one of the many turning points for me during my college years.
Three months later, almost to the day, another man, whose skin was a different hue, who also moved and inspired me, was murdered. I have kept him alive in my head and values too.
And just under five years later, in April of 1968 I found myself out of college and graduate school and on active duty in the military. I was also an adjunct professor at a regional campus of the University of South Carolina, USC Lancaster, an occupation in which I had found my calling. Like Dr. King I was an opponent of the Vietnam War even though I was serving my country in the Air Force. And I was very open with my students about my views, which they found quite controversial. Dr. King was murdered on a Thursday and I was scheduled to teach my class the next day on Friday evening. So I went to the Base library and checked out four different volumes of Dr. King’s writings. My class that evening was a celebration of his life. I gave a reading from these works and engaged my students, those few that were willing, in discussion about what his life had meant and might mean as time and perspectives moved on.
A week later when I arrived on the campus and checked my mailbox before my class I found a note in it from my Dean, asking me to come to his office. I always arrived for class about an hour early so that I could meet with any of my students who knew I would be there early. My Dean knew I would be there early too. He and I had a good relationship. He had even offered me a full-time teaching position at the institution to commence after my tour of active duty was to end in the fall of 1968. And I had accepted the appointment and looked forward to moving there.
So I went in and found my Dean. He explained in a very straight forward manner that after my class of the previous Friday night, a small delegation of my students (he never told me how many or whom) had come to see him to complain that I was a “n—– lover”, as illustrated by the fact that I had devoted an entire three hour class period to the life and times of the late Martin Luther King. I acknowledged that I was guilty as charged. And while the Dean was at it, he explained to me that my views on the Vietnam War had also been reported to him and that such views were contrary to local community sentiment, which were very pro-war. He even offered me this fascinating explanation: that because of the history of discrimination against black South Carolinians and the resulting inferior public education they had received, a result had been significantly higher failure rates for black males on the Selective Service AFQT, Armed Forces Qualifying Test. In turn, that meant that whites, who had been more educationally advantaged were passing the test at higher rates; and thus being drafted at higher rates; and thus being killed in Vietnam at higher rates; and thus there was great community support for the war to rationalize and justify this loss of local citizens. This was a transformative conversation for me. I knew I would never fit at this campus under this leader and so I resigned my appointment even before finding another one (which I did—and from which I was terminated a year later for my civil rights activism on behalf of local black citizens—another story indeed, and further testimony of the influence of Dr. King).
And two months later, in June of 1968, another potentially great American leader was murdered, Robert Kennedy. I still feel cheated by that.
I invite any of my readers, who have the opportunity to have college students in class, to also hold a reading of Dr. King’s works. I urge you to engage your students in reflection upon the current status of equality of opportunity in America. I urge you to invite your students to share with you who are their s/heroes. Do they hear the voices of any leaders ringing in their heads and shaping their values, convictions, and actions? Do they go to the primary source (now on the web of course) and read the words of leaders themselves, as I did to implant those words and images more deeply in my consciousness? How might the college experience and period of life be opening them up to new sources of inspiration and to the kinds of people they could and will become? You, my reader, can be instrumental in facilitating these kinds of ephiphanies and resulting transformations for our students.
I knew then in 1963 and I know even more now, fifty years later, that the March on Washington and Dr. King’s speech was an agent of liberation and transformation for me.