John N. Gardner
For many of us on Inauguration Day 2013 it was just impossible to resist comparisons of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Different men, different times, different contexts, different speakers. I wonder, wouldn’t even want to venture a guess, what percent of our country’s college students actually heard/saw the address live. Sadly, I suspect very few relatively. And if they had/did, did they know what they were hearing that might be significant? I hope some of us have been talking about this with them.
I had been in college two years when I heard, live, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I remember where I was, time of day, what I was doing. Really quite simple. I was in New Jersey in August of 1963, driving to a second shift job in a factory that made beer and soda cans. Millions of cans and not a drop to drink. A real torture for a 19 year old college kid like me. I was a unionized steelworker, who didn’t know what he wanted to major in at the end of his sophomore year, let alone what he wanted to do in life. But I knew what I didn’t want to do: work the rest of my life in that plant. It was a character building experience that had been arranged for me by my father. The older I get the smarter he gets. And he has been deceased for 35 years.
I was working for the first time in my life in a very multi-racial/ethnic environment. I was a child of privilege who was dropped into an ideal learning setting. I was learning that even though I thought the plant’s jobs were incredibly monotonous, they were nevertheless the ticket to good middleclass incomes and lifestyles for my fellow workers. They were lucky to have them. And I was happy for them. America was then in the business, unlike now, of growing its middle class.
I knew there was going to be a march that day. I at least had a car with a simple radio, good enough to catch Reverend King’s speech live as I drove on the Garden State Parkway. After few paragraphs into the speech, I knew that I had never heard anything like this in my life.
So I pulled over on the shoulder and put my flasher on. In my best of college lecture classes I had finally grown up enough to be a very active, focused listener to some really good stuff that would stimulate my thinking if only I let it. But this speech was something else. I had never heard anything like it. Not even President Kennedy’s Inaugural, which I had also heard, when I was a senior in high school. Not only how it was being delivered, but what was being said. I shall never forget that day. While I couldn’t fully anticipate the contribution the speech would make—how it would increase the momentum to pass the Civil Rights Bill one year later, and the Voting Rights and Higher Education Acts two years later, I knew enough to know that it was going to be a game changer for our country.
And so what are our students thinking about what they heard in this Inaugural? I hope you are helping them think that through. How are they trying to connect the words to what may unfold for them? What difference might it make for them if we developed a more humane policy towards immigration? Do they want to see Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security preserved, modified? Are they regretful there was no mention of the national debt as the Republicans have lamented? Did it strike them as significant to hear a US president reference explicitly our fellow citizens who are “gay”? Did the speech strike them as an unapologetic, even uncompromising exposition of liberalism? So many questions they could be asking. So many things for them to be thinking about. We are helping them, I hope.
If I were 19 again, and had heard the speech just two days ago, would it have implanted itself in a way that I would remember it 39 years later? I am not sure. But I know that after two years of college, the college experience had already better prepared me to know that what I was hearing was really something special. I am thankful we now celebrate the birthday of this great American. Many of our students cannot remember a time when we didn’t, let alone the resistance to doing so. And that is another indicator, that resistance or not, America is changing, ready or not. We need to help our students be more than ready.