“I have a dream” is one of the most resonant phrases in American history. It is part of a narrative on race relations in the United States spoken by famous civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963.
Three members of the Springfield College community – Barry Brooks, class of 1964; Daniel Smith, class of 1960; and Bob Parsonage, then the college’s chaplain – all heard those words in person.
Just as interesting as Brooks, Smith and Parsonage’s recollections of that event, however, are their comments about their own experiences with race in America and the stories they have to tell. The three men shared these memories Monday night in a panel discussion that was part of Springfield College’s series of events called, “The Legacy of Inclusion,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s commencement speech at the college on June 14, 1964.
Brooks, a long-time educator in the Amherst, Mass. public school system, opened the panel by putting the idea of racial relations into context right away. He described the segregation he experienced growing up in Washington, D.C.
“We have a tendency to think of the black and white in King’s speech as ancient history,” said the 72-year-old Brooks. “That’s not the case.”
Smith exemplified this fact with his own story. His father, who was born in Virginia in 1862, was a slave. Smith, who served in the Korean War before coming to Springfield at 23, is one of a handful of people who are only one generation removed from slavery. He recalled hearing accounts from his mother and other family members about his father’s life.
“I heard stories about the whipping post,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what a whipping post was then.”
Parsonage, now 77, was the self-proclaimed youngest chaplain in the United States when he came to Springfield at 24. Parsonage said that his experience with racial relations was very limited growing up. Until he attended graduate school in Berkeley, Calif., he had only encountered one African-American student. He said that when it came to the topic that would later become a lifelong mission, he had “an immense interest, but damned little experience.”
Lack of experience did not keep Parsonage from taking a group of Springfield College students to Washington. While the students were eager to go, he described the faculty as hesitant.
“The attitudes about what was beginning to happen in the country in regards to race relations were very mixed,” he said. “[Springfield] was not a hotbed of social justice.”
Brooks described the college as a place that, while not openly hostile, was somewhat disassociated from the conflicts with race surrounding the campus.
“Springfield was sort of an apple-pie kind of place,” Brooks said. “There was this idea of, ‘We’re a good place, we’re good people. [Racism] is out there.”
Brooks, a former basketball coach, found the athletic culture at the college to be more inclusive.
“Something about the ethic of sports is unique at Springfield College,” Brooks said. “There is a split personality thing. People didn’t really have a sense of where other people came from, but if you were willing to join in and be a team player, you found a place to play and were OK.”
While Smith said he had a good experience at Springfield and credited his alma mater with helping him to found the national Area Health Education Center, he was unsure about whether to attend the march, hesitant about what he would find beyond Alden Street.
“I wasn’t interested in messing around with the gas and the police,” he said. “We got to New York Avenue and a police officer stopped us and said, ‘What are you doing?’ We told him we were going to the March and he said, ‘Let me give you an escort.’”
When Smith finally arrived after the urging of a friend, he described a scene with people in the trees, trying as hard as they could to get a good view.
“We worked our way up to the front and were about 1,000 yards back from where Martin Luther King spoke,” said Smith, now 82. “I don’t think we understood until we were riding home how historic it was.”
Brooks, a native of the nation’s capital who was 21 at the time, recalled walking from his mother’s church to the Lincoln Memorial with his parents and his girlfriend at the time, Judy, who was 19. Now, after 49 years of marriage – including children and grandchildren – the pair continue to be active when it comes to civil rights. They attended both inaugurations of President Barack Obama, as well as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
“People had come to support something they believed in,” Brooks recalled of that day in late August. “I don’t think negativity could have survived there.”
The March on Washington provided inspiration that instilled a life-long passion in Parsonage, who was already heavily involved in acts of social justice. He said the March gave him a sense of renewed hope that he didn’t have before.
Parsonage worked closely with King to establish a base for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New England. Parsonage also helped to recruit students and organize voter registration so that, as he said, the Civil Rights Bill would have a chance of getting passed.
“Social justice and racial relations became a commitment of my life,” said the 77-year-old Parsonage. “I’m still working with that commitment.”
Parsonage later spent 15 years as the president of Northland College in Wisconsin, which is nationally known for its environmental curriculum. The college, which Parsonage said is settled on four Indian reservations, allowed him to establish connections with the Ojbwe people, working to provide scholarships for Native American students. He was also named an honorary elder in one of the other nearby tribes. In his retirement, Parsonage has taken on the project of working with homeless youth, helping to provide them with jobs and a sense of independence.
The former chaplain said that while there have been improvements between that historic day and now, race relations and other topics of social justice still face an uphill battle.
“We have so much farther to go,” he said, “but there’s still a basis for hope. We’ve just got to keep on keeping on.”
Brooks agreed, saying that people – particularly younger generations – must seize the chance to act when they can.
“No matter how difficult things are, change is possible,” Brooks said, “especially if people of good will come together and pool their good will. We should never forget that and never let opportunities go.”
Just as it is necessary to witness and reflect on historic events as they happen, it is just as important for the next generation to take that pen that writes history and use it themselves. Action is required to turn dreams into realities, something that King emphasized to the graduates of the class of 1964.
While nearly 50 years have passed since that speech, King’s words still hold true. Parsonage quoted King’s simple advice to college students, which proves just as timeless and valuable as the proclamation of his dream:
“Please, do not sleep through a revolution. Take up leadership for the cause of justice. Give time, talent and profession to that cause, and you will be worthy of your diploma.”