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Martin Luther King Day: ‘We’ve achieved a lot of his dream’

Kyle Magin
Sierra Sun
AP file photoDr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of hundreds of thousands on Aug. 28, 1963.
ASSOCIATED PRESS | AP

LAKE TAHOE “-When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of hundreds of thousands on Aug. 28, 1963, the crowd was hot and restless.

They’d already marched in front of the Lincoln Memorial and heard a number of other speakers on that hot Washington afternoon.

Among them were a young man from Ohio, Laird Blackwell, who was a freshman at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Blackwell, now a humanities professor at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, remembers the day well.

“The crowd was hot and on-edge and probably could have erupted at any time,” Blackwell said. “But King’s words had an interesting balance of assertiveness and hope.”

Blackwell looked back on the speech recently, given Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is Monday and will be followed by the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama Tuesday in the same city where King delivered his speech.

For Blackwell, Washington D.C. that day was an introduction to a new world.

Hailing from the conservative state of Ohio, Blackwell hadn’t interacted with the civil rights movement much when he was younger, so when Haverford took a bus of students down to Washington, D.C., he jumped at the chance.

“The amazing thing about King’s speech that day is it appealed to everyone,” Blackwell said.

That was all the more amazing, he said, because not everyone agreed with King’s message at the time.

“There was an element present that day that wanted more direct and violent action than King’s message of nonviolent protest,” Blackwell said.

The crowd stood mesmerized, though, as King spoke, Blackwell said.

“When he spoke you could hear the roar of the crowd,” Blackwell said. “It was a big experience. Everyone who heard him was up for half an hour afterwards, and I’m not sure any of us fully came back to Earth after that.”

Blackwell said a lot has changed since 1963.

“If you would have asked me if we could have had a black president a month after the speech, I would have said of course,” Blackwell said. “But after that there were times where I never thought we’d have a black president. I wouldn’t say the speech lost its message, but we found out that inspiration wasn’t enough.”

Blackwell said moments such as the assassination of King, and later in 1968, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, cast a dark pall on the Civil Rights movement and its followers.

“The inspiration never ebbed, but we did take some steps back,” Blackwell said. “We never saw the speech as a statement of fact, rather a statement of what could be.”

Blackwell said he was both dazzled and proud that Obama was elected, and credited his success in the election partially to King.

“In some ways I think we’ve now achieved a lot of his dream,” Blackwell said.

He said he was especially heartened when people voted for Obama not because he was a black candidate, rather, because he was, in Blackwell’s opinion, the best candidate.

“When this happened I noticed a change in a lot of my students here, it was like a miracle,” Blackwell said. “We went through this period in the 90s where students weren’t that involved. Now they seem to have this tremendous sense of optimism and are very in tune with global concerns.”

Blackwell, a 28-year Incline Village resident, had the chance to sit with President-elect Obama during one of his visits to Reno and said he sees clearly the connection between the two leaders, Dr. King’s beliefs and actions leading to Obama’s election victory.


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