The celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the campus, and the surrounding community, a chance to experience history through the eyes of those who lived it, from those whose feet marched alongside civil rights activists in the 1960s, and from the mouths of those who stood up for the same ideals as Dr. King himself.
“One of the things I’m always reminded of, and Dr. King was a perfect example of this, is if you don’t put yourself in the position of the individual with whom you’re speaking, you’re missing one of the most important aspects of conversation, said Trustee David Shane ’70, a panelist for the afternoon discussion.”
Though the day is designed to celebrate what Dr. King stood for when he was alive, it was his assassination that became a catalyst in the lives of many and a reminder to students like Anthony Douglas ’17 that they must continue what Dr. King was unable to finish.
Shane grew up in Evansville, which he admits was segregated not by law, but by habit. Civil rights issues were only theoretical for him, he said, but he began to gain perspective when Dr. King was assassinated near the time he was taking a course in African-American literature at Wabash.
“Culture shock would have been a good phrase,” he said. “I had no experience of what I was reading. I hadn’t seen it up close and personally. But, as an English major, I learned to take words seriously and think about them from the author’s point of view. After Dr. King’s assassination, what he stood for and how he did what he did became a part of that learning. That allowed me to do the right thing better down the road.”
Shane was joined on the panel by William Shrewsberry, who has decades of experience in management through Indiana Bell/Ameritech as well as public service. Shrewsberry knew what it was like to be considered separate but equal, but he missed many of the big civil rights moments during his service in the Navy. When Dr. King was gone, Shrewsberry took it upon himself to stand up for civil rights in the area around him.
“Pointing out the problems of segregation, unfair treatment, and injustices became very personal,” Shrewsberry said. “But Dr. King also reminded me, as I began to read more and study more, that I am somebody that I can make a difference.”
Shrewsberry went on to appear often before the Jeffersonville city council and before the mayor, pointing out the ways in which their community was lacking in diversity and equality. Eventually, Shrewsberry was elected to that city council for four terms.
“After Dr. King’s assassination,” he said, “it became important for many leaders to step up and say this is not who we are. We are better. Part of the dream from 1963 has been imagined and realized, but I don’t think this is the time for us to become complacent. And it is not only race. It’s also gender. It’s also religion.”
Rob Johnson, Emeritus Track and Field Coach, was there in the middle of the large movements. In fact, he and his friends from New Jersey got on a bus in 1963 in order to be a part of the March on Washington.
“There were buses from all over the nation coming in,” he said. “It was sweltering hot and humid. I remember some of the talk, but every time I see a video of it, it reminds me of how potent it was. The rhythm and the power of the talk lives on forever. I was just pleased to be part of history.”
Like the panelists from Monday afternoon, Johnson’s life was also changed by Dr. King’s assassination when he became a recipient of the rights Dr. King had pleaded for.
“I owe my job to Martin Luther King Jr. because he brought about affirmative action,” Johnson said. “I am a direct beneficiary of what he did and the sacrifice he made.”
In order to bring diversity among its staff to campus, Wabash hired Johnson from New Jersey to coach track and field. He ended up coaching 36 years and is still involved in the program today.
“Sometimes it’s easy to have a negative outlook on how things are going,” Anthony Douglas ’17 said. “But after hearing them talk today about some of the things they’ve experienced, we do have to realize we’re making progress. Martin Luther King Jr. said we have to march forward, so I know that I have to do my part and encourage other people to do the same.”