On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 speech at Ahearn Field House, four individuals who were present at the historic speech shared their experiences and answered questions from an audience Friday as part of “I Was There” — a panel hosted by the K-State Alumni Association and K-State Libraries.
Cliff Hight, university archivist and associate professor for Hale Library, said he hoped the event would enable the community “to renew our commitment to building the inclusive world” King had dreamed of in his “The Future of Integration” speech.
“We feel that it is incredibly appropriate to have people who attended that speech to be her to reflect on that,” Hight said.
The panelists included Sue Maes, former dean emeritus of the K-State Global Campus who, at the time of King’s speech, was a junior; Billy Hill, who attended the speech and met King afterward at the age of 13; Sylvia Robinson, chair-elect for the K-State Alumni Association Board of Directors and Bill Worley, K-State student body president for the academic year of 1967-68. They were among the over 7,000 students, faculty and community members who attended the 1968 speech.
“I was just inundated by his persona and what he had to share with us,” Hill said. “I was holding onto every word that he was speaking, and I was just mesmerized by everything that he said.”
Robinson, who was a freshman studying education in 1968, said she had “mixed emotions” and was wary of accepting his plans for peaceful change because she didn’t “know if the non-violent way would get us to where we needed to be.”
“The things that he was talking about started making a lot of sense,” Robinson said. “I left there feeling inspired and ready to get to work on the things that we had identified as students on campus.”
In the months following King’s speech, Robinson worked with administrators and other black students on campus to begin “identifying issues and concerns” such as establishing a Black Student Union, increasing accessibility to scholarships, the integration of female sports teams and the enlistment of more diverse recruitment strategies.
Laurel Littrell, professor for Hale Library, said she found the whole conversation to be “really interesting” and especially liked talking “about how things were in Manhattan in 1968.”
“In some ways, it was good to see how far we have come, and in other ways, it’s kind of sad to see how some of the exact same issues still face us today,” Littrell said.
Worley said he found, at the heart of King’s speech, main ideas from King’s speech such as racial tensions and income inequality are still relevant today.
“The fact of the matter is: things do change,” Worley said.
Maes said we still have a long ways to go.
“The issues are there today as much as they were 50 years ago,” Maes said.