We all experience events in our lifetime that are so transformative in nature, that the occurrence and most minute detail can remain forever engrained in our hearts, minds, and spirits. One of those memorable moments came for me at the age of twenty-six as I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, looking out on a sea of humanity. I was just beginning a new chapter in my journey, after graduating three years prior from Villanova University with an Economics Bachelor of Science degree in hand and a collegiate basketball playing career in the books.
I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at six feet four inches tall with my best friend, Warren Wilson. The evening before on Tuesday, August 27th at the Washington Monument an organizer had asked Warren and I if we had planned on attending the demonstration proceedings the next day as they were in need of extra volunteers due to more gathers being in attendance than initially anticipated.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would become one of the most massive political civil rights rallies in American history bringing over 200,000 people to Washington, D.C. The movement used the nation’s capital as a platform to protest against racial discrimination and inequality while also showing support for civil rights legislation that was pending in Congress.
Our openness and response of yes to the opportunity to volunteer as well as arriving earlier than needed the next morning created the scene for a memorable and historical split exchange to take place on the Lincoln Memorial steps. At twenty-six years old my life would forever become intertwined with the legacy of an iconic global leader and servant activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
However, to understand the magnitude and interweaving fate of this moment on August 28, 1963, and how life indeed works in miraculous ways, we must take a more in-depth look into the lives of Dr. King, Warren and myself forty-eight hours prior to a day that went down as one of the most significant demonstrations for human rights in United States history.
Two days before the demonstration, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was prepping with his aides and striving to finalize the direction of the speech which he was scheduled to orate. His team did not think he should use the lines “I Have a Dream” in his speech as they thought it was “trite and cliche” and had been used too many times prior. Dr. King’s use of “I Have a Dream” was a theme that was featured in an address at a fundraiser a week earlier in Chicago and months prior at rallies in Detroit and Selma. Dr. King wholeheartedly taking the feedback from his council led him to omit any reference to “I Have a Dream” in the entire document of the speech.
While Dr. King was preparing for the demonstration and the finalized delivery of the speech with his council team, Warren Wilson and I were in Claymont, Delaware at his family’s home. Dr. Woodrow Wilson, Warren’s father, a prominent dentist in Wilmington, advocated during dinner with his wife Lucile, that Warren and I go to Washington, D.C. to immerse ourselves in the sights and sounds of this monumental time in history. Still young, resistant, and naive, the two of us had not lived long enough to grasp fully why Dr. Wilson was so adamant that we be present at the March on Washington demonstrations two days later on Wednesday, August 28th.
With Dr. Wilson’s gracious lending of the car and cash, Warren and I departed the next day, making the two-hour drive from Delaware to Washington, D.C. Upon arrival, we checked into a motel on New York Avenue and made our way to the Washington Monument grounds where we would cross paths with an event organizer who would present us with an opportunity of a lifetime.
For me to become the guardian of what we have come to know as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we are presented with so many what-ifs and the beauty of fate…
What if the Wilson family did not urge their son Warren and I to take in the demonstration?
What if Dr. King did not deviate from the planned, written speech and does not ad-lib the “I Have a Dream” section?
What if gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a close confidant to Dr. King, who was seated behind him at the podium as he spoke that day did not encourage him to tell the people about the dream? Would the speech still have the impact as one of the greatest orator compositions in history that began to change America’s consciousness?
What if the organizers did not allow Dr. King to go over the assigned five minutes designated speech limit that other presenters had to abide by?
What if Warren and I did not show up the evening before at the Washington Monument grounds, would we still have had an opportunity to volunteer?
What if Warren and I did not arrive earlier than needed on the morning of the demonstration, would we have still been assigned to handle podium security volunteer duties on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?
And what if after Dr. King ends with his grand crescendo lines “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last!” I do not approach Dr. King asking for that copy of the speech?
While there are so many what-ifs, the reality becomes clear that all these instances were destined to happen. I was in the right place at the right time and maximized a unique opportunity which at the time I did not understand the profound magnitude and significance of.
For twenty years I housed the speech as we know today as “I Have a Dream,” in an autographed copy of President Harry S. Truman’s autobiography. It was not until I took the men’s basketball coaching job with the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1983 that I was interviewed by a reporter from the Cedar Rapids Gazette by the name of Bob Denney that it became public knowledge that I was the guardian and keeper of this precious and historical document. Mr. Denney was writing a piece on me about being the first African American head basketball coach in Iowa history, and through our conversation, he asked if I ever had any involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
Whenever questioned, what made me ask Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the speech, I always smile and say, “I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech. But I’m sure glad that I did.”
While I have been the guardian of the “I Have a Dream” speech for the last fifty-five years, I deeply understand that the speech does not just belong to me. It belongs to humanity. As we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, I share with you six life lessons I learned from that day that continues to remain engrained in the essence of who I am and strive to become.
Practice Random Acts of Kindness
Dr. Woodrow Wilson, Warren’s father, did not have to lend his car and give us money to attend the demonstrations in Washington, D.C. but he did from the pure grace of his heart. Being surrounded by an extraordinary family like the Wilson’s they were able to see invaluable opportunities that I could not quite see for myself. They helped me tapped into my own unique and unlimited potential for discovery and excellence. The Wilson family understood deeply to never underestimate the power of a kind word, touch, gesture, or smile because people will always remember how you made them feel. Dr. Wilson’s random act of kindness gesture forever changed my life and altered my outlook on serving others.
The Preciousness of Time: Arrive Early
Success does not have business hours, it only has production hours. Lessons are always presented to us every day. It is our responsibility to remain aware of these opportunities in the process while having the chance to create a unique value for ourselves, skill sets and others. If we focus on the present moment and what is in our control, exhausting our fullest potential today, with time the repetition creates momentum, the momentum builds results, and the results create invaluable experiences. The life process is never merely a destination but a transformative journey of self-discovery. And the only thing that is ever guaranteed is this moment.
Embrace the Unknown: Maximize the Moment
Make the most of every opportunity you are given. Each day is a gift, an interview, a new story, a celebration, a blank canvas, an intellectual journey, a negotiation. Every day merely is Now. Do not allow events to pass you by, even if the time, funding and circumstances are not entirely right. Face every precious moment of your 86,400 seconds each day to maximize your full potential while being a positive difference maker in the life of another person.
Never Be Afraid to Ask For What You Want
One of life’s most significant challenges is to differentiate between what the world expects of you, and what you expect of yourself. If you work towards being normal, you will never know how amazing you can be. See what others do not see. Do what others will not do. Ask what others are afraid to ask. Give more than others are willing to give. Look beyond what is, into what can be and further into what should be.
Leaving A Legacy: Servant Leadership
At the end of the day, your fundamental responsibility is to serve those who you lead. With that as the foundation, you figure out the needs of the group as a whole as well as the needs of the group from an individual standpoint. So the needs in Selma, Alabama might be different than the requirements in Jackson, Mississippi, or for the people in Detroit and D.C. But as you go along, the one thing that becomes crystal clear for a servant leader is that it is never about “Me” and always about “We.” I think it becomes incumbent upon you as a leader to ask yourself and figure out how can I best serve the needs of those individuals who are followers. The minute you embrace servant leadership, it defines, transforms and transcends your leadership style and influence.
The Power Of A Dream
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has remained a constant reminder to me of the real value a dream has and the responsibilities that come with having a dream. The relevance that a dream can play in a person’s life. I have learned from Dr. King to be a Dream Maker. To assist people in turning their dreams into realities. It is no question that August 28, 1963, was a day that inspired and empowered me to reevaluate how I lived my life and what I believed my contributions to society should be.
The time is here and now for humanity, at this moment to take a stand, to do better, to be better, and to practice daily the powerful essence of love, unity, and empathy in our consciousness and living. There are no finish lines in some dreams. To me, what we have learned is this is going to be an ongoing struggle to make Dr. King’s dream a reality. We have realized that dreams come with a lot of complexities. But just the fact that Dr. King had a dream and people bought into his vision, our society learned a valuable lesson: When you buy into a dream — you must buy into it wholeheartedly without deferment.
The “I Have a Dream” speech will always be an enduring mechanism for us because it is every bit as applicable today as it was fifty-five years ago. And maybe that is the way it should be where we hear the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from a distance passionately crying out “I Have a Dream.” This keeps his truth-telling and vision at the center of our minds, hearts, and spirits as we become change agents as well as positive difference makers for our communities and institutions. So one day all parties regardless of race, religion, color, creed, and sexual orientation can live out the true meaning of Dr. King’s grand crescendo lines “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”