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Themes of 1968 stay relevant 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s Speech

Dr. King speaking to a an audience of 3,000 students and university community members in 1968 (Photo by Communications and Marketing)

To honor Dr. King’s appearance at ONU half a century earlier, a panel discussion consisting of students and staff, present at the event recollected their experience on witnessing the speech almost exactly 50 years to the day. At the Freed Center for Performing Arts Biggs Theatre, a group of seven individuals who, at the time of Dr. King’s speech, were students, professors and staff at ONU reflected with comments the similarity of the themes of 1968 to the themes of today.  

The event began with remarks from President Daniel Dibiasio who reflected on the significance of the event and related the divided political and social environment of the U.S. today to that of the speech in 1968, which was the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“From marchers at Charlottesville, Virginia to the nation’s leader, we’ve recently heard words of discord and division regarding race. All the more reason to recall the words Dr. King spoke in 1968 and be inspired by them in 2018.”

Reverend David Macdonald of Religious Life led the discussion of the panel interspersed with readings of reflections by other alumni who were students and attended the speech. The panel members themselves reflected on the variety of people who witnessed and were influenced by Dr. King, differing in occupation, race and class.

There were several former students on the panel including Joel Weaver, who studied pharmacy in 1968 and is now a pharmacist. Weaver was almost able to ride in the car with Rev. James S Udy, a former classmate of Dr. King’s and the main reason for his appearance at ONU, to pick up Dr. King from the airport.  

Sadika White is one of the founding members of ONU’s Black Student Union and was one of less than thirty African-American students who attended ONU in 1968. “I had on a white blazer and why was that important?” She later went on to explain how important of a moment the speech was for her life and her African-American colleagues, having them wear their best clothes.

Bob Roberts was a student studying Education at ONU in 1968 when he attended King’s speech,

“I think it's important to remember that, that was a day very different than a day like today because there were so many pressures on young people on campus including the Vietnam War, including the draft, including trying to graduate and get a diploma and that the so-called black problem was a problem somewhere else, not a problem in Ada...So walking into the gym that day was very different than walking out of the gym that day.”

Bob Parsons, an African-American and sophomore football player in 1968, told the audience, “If you haven't heard the speech, go online and listen to it and you’ll find he was five decades ahead of his time.”

The distinguished Terry Keiser had just begun teaching as a professor of Biology, at the beginning of his 50 year tenure at ONU. For him, the problems of that time are still present today. Professor Alfred Cohoe who also had a decades long career at ONU witnessed the speech as a faculty member.

Monty Siekerman was Director of Public Information at ONU in 1968, which at the time was a very small department. He had just started working at ONU the Fall before the speech.  Siekerman took all of the photos of the event that are still around today, positioned right near MLK during the speech. He recalled, “Working at a university, I have heard a number of speakers, but no one compares with him.”

The discussion also had several students read excerpts from other alumni present at the speech. Many of them reflecting on the importance of keepsakes from the visit such as photos of one woman sitting on the elevated running track during the speech, the picture is one of her most cherished possessions.

This panel discussion is the beginning of a several month long celebration of Dr. King’s influence at ONU. It will culminate with the dedication ceremony for a statue of Dr. King’s likeness on ONU’s campus in April.


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