Guest column: FGCU president on impact, legacy of MLK

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By Wilson G. Bradshaw, Ph.D.


President, Florida Gulf Coast University

Can it be that 50 years have passed since the March on Washington occurred and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his prophetic “I Have a Dream” speech? Indeed, a half century has passed since one of the most important events in our country’s history occurred on Aug. 28, 1963.

The March on Washington united many Americans, black and white, who together made an unequivocal statement about equality for all.

While the two major themes of the March were freedom and jobs, those who participated and their sympathizers embodied a moral authority which demanded that equality for all must go beyond being a value statement articulated by America but rather a value that is actualized for and by all Americans.

I am a native Floridian. I was born in Sanford and from the age of eight raised in West Palm Beach.

I am proud to say I am a product of the Florida public education system. I graduated from Palm Beach High School, earned my associate of arts degree from then-Palm Beach Junior College, and my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida Atlantic University.

During my early years, I grew up in a segregated Florida where I went to movies in separate theaters, drank from “colored” water fountains, sat in “colored” waiting rooms, and ate in the “colored” section of lunch counters when there was one.

In September 1963, just a few short weeks after the March on Washington, I started ninth grade at Central Junior High School in Palm Beach County. At 13 years old, this was the first time I attended school with people who didn’t look like me. Yet, 1963 was almost a decade after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregation in public schools violated equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

There was a renewed sense of hope after the march. The peaceful demonstration resulted in many people in our country rethinking their positions on race and racial equality. The dialogue about race was and continues to be tense and fraught with misunderstandings. Nevertheless, the progress that has occurred in our country is a result, at least in part, of these often difficult but important discussions which have at their core a caution to us all don’t believe everything you think.

For me, I will take the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a special opportunity to reflect on all I have seen and experienced as an American of African descent during my lifetime in my country. I know the pain and humiliation of segregation and being treated unfairly because of my race. I also have confidence that the hearts and minds of fair-minded, moral people can continue to change the world. And, although there remains much to be done, this gives me more hope than despair.

My mother, Olivia, died in 2002. I was so glad that a year earlier she was able to join me and my four brothers and sisters in Minnesota at my inauguration as president of Metropolitan State University, the institution I served for almost eight years before coming to Florida Gulf Coast University.

I’m sure Mom never dreamed, even in 2002, that an African-American would soon be elected president of the United States and certainly not twice. Unfortunately, race and gender still inappropriately matter to some when electing their leaders and also in other ways. Still, no matter your political persuasion, we all must take pride that we live in a great country where race and gender increasingly matter less in determining one’s opportunities.

If America is to fully achieve the ideals espoused in our Constitution and upon which Dr. King so eloquently spoke at the March, we must continue to fight the monsters of bigotry, racism and discrimination. We can do this.

At 63 years old, I know we can do this.

As I bring these thoughts to a close, it occurs to me that I have seen so much in my lifetime and no doubt will see and experience even more as my life goes on. I am reminded that some of the history I’ve described in this article was not that long ago. It brings to mind that phrase we all have seen in the side view mirrors of our cars: “Objects (think “historical events”) in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Moving forward toward a better future for all requires us to know our history. It is closer than we think.

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