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King's Dream speech, 50 years ago, still resonates with Utahns

Published August 25, 2013 5:21 pm

Legal barriers have fallen, but some say King's dream is far from fulfilled.
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One line of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech perplexed Lonnie Wishom as a youngster growing up in the Bay Area.

It was King's dream that one day, "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

"I remember thinking, 'Well, duh. Why wouldn't that be the case?' " says Wishom, 24, a recent Weber State University graduate now working for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in Washington. "Then I found out it hadn't always been the case."

King delivered his Dream speech, considered by scholars to be the greatest American political speech of the 20th century, on Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Some 250,000 gathered that sweltering day, a mall crowd still unsurpassed in size. Millions, including President John F. Kennedy, listened by radio.

The speech energized discouraged civil rights activists and awakened the consciences of many whites.

But one legacy of the speech, 50 years on, is its emotional power to transmit to younger generations the stark truths of inequity that remained in America 100 years after slavery.

For Sha'von Daniels and Annette Bankhead, both 24 and graduates of the University of Utah in 2012 and 2013, respectively, the speech was the gate through which they would learn much about the civil rights struggle.

Bankhead remembers memorizing parts of King's speech as a little girl growing up in Salt Lake City. She still owns her children's book with the text of the speech.

"It's important for our generation to know our history and where we come from," says Daniels, who lives in Taylorsville.

"People died for us to … have some of the liberties we have today," says Daniels. "That's why it's so important as black females to take advantage of all these opportunities we have. Not so long ago, they didn't have that."

'It was like electrical power' • Winston Wilkinson wishes more young blacks would think like that.

"The dream itself opened up a lot of doors, but my concern is that we as a people are not taking advantage of it," says Wilkinson. Many young blacks "don't have a clue because they didn't live it."

Wilkinson did.

Aug. 28, 1963, was his 19th birthday, and he was on the fringes of the march, listening to King's speech by radio as he and other sailors guarded the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River.

They had orders to "let nobody in but everybody out" if the march turned into a riot.

Wilkinson and several other black sailors had already discussed what they would do if ordered to raise their rifles against civil rights marchers: They would refuse.

"These people are coming to march for our freedom, and here we are going to use our rifles to break it up? We knew we would probably be court-martialed," says Wilkinson, a former Salt Lake County councilman who served as director of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Mike Leavitt.

Wilkinson, who grew up in a segregated community outside Washington, had joined the Navy just out of high school in 1962. President Kennedy wanted more diversity at state dinners, and Wilkinson was among the first blacks to serve in military honor guards on such ceremonial occasions.

On Wednesday, he'll be in Washington, celebrating his 69th birthday at events commemorating the March on Washington.

The Rev. France Davis, who would later become a leader in Utah's black community, was also at the march.

He was 16 and on his way home to Georgia by bus after a summer job moving furniture in New Jersey. He was staying with his older sister; she told him why there were so many thousands of people streaming into Washington.

Though King was just a speck from Davis' spot in the crowd on the mall, he could hear the charismatic civil rights leader clearly via loudspeakers.

"It was exciting," Davis remembers. "It was like electrical power."

The speech, says Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, was powerful enough to keep activists committed at a time when many questioned the wisdom of nonviolence and the future of the movement.

Davis also was on the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and his involvement in those historical moments shaped the man he became. "Both of them said, 'Here's what your life goals and work ought to be,' " says Davis.

Realizing King's dream, he says, has been a mixed bag.

"The laws are in place, but the attitudes are where we still have to work," says Davis. "People still believe in superiority and inferiority."

'Reality check' • Recent political history crystallized the awareness among black Utahns that racism is not dead.

At the same time a majority of American voters elected and then re-elected the first black president, Barack Obama, his election exposed a vein of prejudice.

"It was kind of a reality check," says Daniels.

"I knew we had not come that far, but I did not think we were that far behind," says Bankhead. "It was sad to see. You wanted to have faith in your country to think we were past that."

Jeff Henry, 53, says that he had to intervene during Obama's first campaign when his son, then in junior high, was disturbed by white kids saying that Obama would be assassinated, and that blacks would be targets of violence if he were elected.

Henry, then based at Hill Air Force Base, told his son to tell his peers that his father would have to report their comments as threats once Obama was president. That ended the bullying, he says.

Henry, retired from the Air Force and now a senior at WSU — his son is a sophomore at the university — believes America has far to go in realizing King's dream that children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

"People generally label and judge people right off the bat," says Henry, who grew up in Reno, Nev. "We're not judged by content."

Young black men and women in college are often presumed to be athletes, he notes, just as Asians are thought to be good at math.

Celest Osei-Boamah, 17, a senior at Highland's Lone Peak High, says it annoys her that her skin color is a topic of conversation among her peers. "They mention my skin for no reason," says Osei-Boamah, whose mother is white and father is black.

When she and 20 other black high school students attended a leadership institute at the U. this summer, she says, white riders on buses were sometimes hostile or would "back away" from the group.

"Fifty years later, you still see racism," she says, noting that some of the worst treatment she witnesses as a young Utahn is directed toward Mexicans. "You see people constantly belittling Mexicans, pointing them out and making jokes."

Jan Curtis, also 17 and a student at Sandy's Alta High, remembers the surprise on the faces of a classmate's parents when she came to play in third grade. The next day, her pal ended their friendship.

Bankhead has been called the n-word on the streets of Salt Lake City, and knows the sting of waiting for a seat in a restaurant where it's obvious the staff doesn't want a group of young blacks.

"Change hasn't happened as much as it should have," says Bankhead. "It's going to take generations and generations."

Wishom, who runs the reception desk at Hatch's office in Washington, says it would be foolhardy to believe race doesn't matter anymore.

But it's not a small thing, he says, that there are no longer legal barriers to those who want an education, a job or to participate as a citizen.

"In 2013, no one is bending over backward to help black people because we used to be slaves," says Wishom. "It's important for people to realize we have all these opportunities and it's up to us."

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KristenMoulton —

Utah bells will ring to remember Dream speech

Bells will ring around the country at 1 p.m. MDT on Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs are hosting an event, "Let Freedom Ring," on the steps of the Capitol, beginning at 12:30 p.m.