Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 27, 2006

Each of us can make a difference

The speakers were emotional. I could see and feel that they had been deeply touched by the man they were honoring. I have celebrated his legacy before, but last Friday's observance brought it home in a more personal way.

The ceremony to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was held in Kansas State University's Ahearn Field House - the same building he spoke in 38 years ago this month. It was his last appearance in front of a university audience before his assassination less than three months later in April 1968.

One of the speakers called upon King's spirit "to fill the space," and somehow it seemed it had.

Board of Regents member Dan Lykins was a K-State senior when King spoke in Ahearn. He said he could still picture King standing on the stage. Lykins interviewed him after his speech for the campus radio station. King made a special effort to include a blind student who was with Lykins. He invited the student to his hotel so the student could interview him without being jostled by the crowd.

Sculptor Richard Bergen, whose 22-foot tall bronze sculpture, "Ad Astra" sits atop the Kansas capitol dome, was present for the unveiling of his clay bust of King. He too seemed moved and pleased that his work will honor the civil rights leader. The finished bronze sculpture, which will stand in front of Ahearn, is to be dedicated in April. Bergen used around 50 photographs to guide him in crafting the bust. He said the completed work, although not an exact representation of King at any one particular time, was a combination of King's strongest features.

After I left Ahearn, I reflected on some of my own experiences. I was 14 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed - old enough to understand what was going on, but too young to understand why. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy two months later was equally gut-wrenching.

I had grown up on a farm in the Midwest, sheltered from the strife of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I was personally unaware that a person's skin color could be the cause of such hate and division. But racism came to our living room via our television set. I remember feeling sick when TV accounts showed Southern policemen turning fire hoses on black demonstrators.

My first experience getting to know people of another race was when Mom, my sister Gaila and I spent the summer of 1965 in Emporia. Mom was attending college to complete her education degree. An African American family was living in the same apartment complex, and Gaila and I became friends with their daughters Lorraine and Loranda. We swam in the complex's swimming pool, went to movies, shopped and walked around campus together. It seemed so natural that it was hard to believe it wasn't that way everywhere.

In the open farmlands of Kansas where I grew up, there were almost no African Americans. Since it was from these same areas that K-State has traditionally drawn the majority of its students, the campus tended to be predominantly white. But King's leadership was felt even in places such as these. So by 1975, the year I was a senior at K-State, my friend Bernard Franklin became the first African American student body president - and he was elected in a write-in campaign.

As I neared my office Friday afternoon, the carillon in Anderson Hall's tower chimed the notes to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" -- often called the Black National Anthem. Hopefully King's spirit filled not just Ahearn or the campus that day. Changes, such as those King worked for, tend to take time and are marked by setbacks. But if he taught us anything, it might be that, little by little, step by step, each of us can make a difference.

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