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Keep Martin Luther King's dream alive, says Gray
February 9, 1998

To keep Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream alive, African Americans must be aware of history and continue the quest for education, former Congressman William Gray, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund said last Wednesday.

Gray said Black History Month is about looking back at the achievements of African Americans over time and looking forward to see the challenges that remain. "We've come a mighty long way in this country since 1963," he said.

His often impassioned speech included personal reminiscences of Martin Luther King Jr., and vignettes illustrating the position of African Americans in society, particularly in the post-World War II era.

Gray's presentation to an audience of more than 100 faculty, staff and students marked the start of Black History Month, the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and the 30th anniversary of the University's African American Cultural Center: "The Black House," that was founded in a small house near Frat Row in 1968, the year King was killed.

"Why do we continue to tell these stories?" said Willena Price, director of the AACC. "We must continue to tell our story or it will die along with Dr. King's dream, because the struggle continues."

Chancellor Mark Emmert reiterated his personal commitment to diversity. He spoke of the center's remarkable growth during a 30-year period but said the work of the community is not done. Despite the progress made in diversifying, "we still have a long way to go," he said.

Gray was the keynote speaker during an evening of song and drama that included vocal performances by students Lisa Clayton and Albert Lee and the Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir, dramatic performances from Lori Hudson and graduate student Mingo Long, and taped excerpts from King's speech, "I have a dream."

Gray said he was there for King's speech, on a hot August day in 1963, when he went to the nation's capital "to protest apartheid in this country."

He said at the time, the majority of white Americans were violently opposed to King and the civil rights movement, and many African Americans did not support him. "We should not get sentimental about Martin Luther King. He was trying to change America in a radical revolution and when we look back, he succeeded."

Now there are 43 members of the U.S. Congress who are black, he said. In 1963 there were five. There are also black mayors in major cities across the country and television is filled with images of black people, in entertainment, basketball, football, and now, with Tiger Woods, even golf. "Understand, in 1963, none of these sports were predominantly black," Gray told the students in the audience, most of whom were not yet born in the 1960s.

Yet there is still a long way to go, he added. "Despite the progress of a number of significant individuals, there are still problems for the majority of black Americans." Black unemployment remains twice that of whites in America, in spite of three years of phenomenal economic growth, and Department of Labor figures show that the lifetime earnings of a black person with a college education will only equal those of a white person with a high school diploma.

Gray said the journey of African Americans during the past 30 years is characterized by the struggle for justice, the struggle for excellence, and the struggle for community.

Gray, who knew Martin Luther King personally when he visited the Grays' home in Philadelphia as a young seminarian, said King's dream did not come out of a vacuum.

"I grew up in the America of segregation and apartheid," he said.

Despite outstanding accomplishments in high school, Gray said when he graduated he could not attend universities such as Duke, the University of North Carolina, or Florida State, because he was blacka.

His father had a master's degree and a Ph.D. but often had to drive all night because he couldn't stay in a Holiday Inn or a Sheraton, he sai.

And black veterans returning to this country after World War II, despite serving with distinction, couldn't go to college or get home loans from the Veterans Administration.

"This is the America of 30 years ago," he said. "How far have we come, and have we reached the dream today."

Gray had scathing criticism for the opponents of affirmative action. Does anyone think the playing field is level for African Americans, Hispanics, and women in the 25 years since affirmative action was introduced? he asked.

He said there are preferences for veterans and for the disabled, but the only preference people want to talk about is a preference for African Americans.

Of the 1.4 million blacks who go to college, 84 percent go to white colleges, and 16 percent go to black colleges. "Thirty-five years ago it was just the reverse," Gray said, adding that there are more blacks in colleges than in prisons. "You've got to understand your history and you've got to understand the facts," he said. "If we want to keep the dream alive, we've got to keep the progress and the education alive."

"In two years we enter the 21st century," he said, citing a demographic projection that by the year 2050, half of the population will be African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, or a mixture. "If we don't struggle for justice ... then this country won't compete in a global environment."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu