“I Have a Dream” rang out from a TV set at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1963.
Vera Kelly was a student at the historically black college because black people were not allowed to attend the University of Mississippi.
The speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. moved her to tears.
“He said one day his kids would go to any school with white kids,” Kelly, 68, of Davenport, said. “I wanted to live to see the day that would happen.”
The Quad-City area was not immune to 1960s racism. Joe McLemore said that, as a teenager, he couldn’t get a job as a waiter; black people could only be busboys or cooks.
Segregation spurred King to act. He traveled the country and visited the Quad-Cities in 1965 to receive the Pacem in Terris Award from the Diocese of Davenport. Many point to the election of the first black president as proof that King’s dream is being realized, but Kelly and others agree that his work is far from over.
Sheilia Burrage, 65, who grew up in Davenport, said she didn’t learn to appreciate King’s words until she entered the workforce and became a mother.
“The speech is a blueprint for where we are today,” she said. “It just took so long.”
Burrage said her personal experience, in which she was often the “only black child” in school, taught her to be fearless in life, especially when she was subjected to racism at a job where fellow employees weren’t used to working with blacks.
She said racism is taught.
“It’s not in your DNA,” she said. “It’s what you’re exposed to.”
Burrage thought she had lived her whole life having avoided being the victim of racial slurs, and then this past weekend, someone spray-painted a racial slur on a car parked in front of her home.
“That was unfortunate,” she said.
Elected to the Davenport City Council in 2011, she is the only black and the only woman on the council.
She said King’s work isn’t finished, especially when “we have prisons over-filled with African-Americans and Latinos.”
A teenager in Davenport during 1963, Joe McLemore experienced discrimination when applying for jobs.
“The African-Americans worked in the kitchen in those days, not on the floor where the customers sat,” he said. “That’s the way it was. There were jobs geared for us: cook, busboy, car wash, factory work.”
McLemore remembers area civil rights leaders such as Charles Toney, who helped McLemore start his own barbershop. Now, the 69-year-old owns Joe’s Barber Shop on Harrison Street.
Photos of King and Malcolm X hang on his mirror. An Obama campaign sign hangs in the window. He said King had “courage” when speaking about civil rights and called the election of the first black president “inspirational.”
Yet, McLemore said black-on-black crime is the worst he’s ever seen and added that blacks rank at the bottom in terms of education and employment.
“If King were to come back here today, he wouldn’t think he accomplished very much at all,” McLemore said.
Rev. Marvin Mottet
A handful of people from the Quad-Cities, including the Rev. Marvin Mottet, then 33, made an overnight road trip to Washington, D.C., to witness King’s “Dream” speech.
Mottet returned the next day, bleary-eyed from yet another overnight road trip home, to share the experience with his St. Ambrose College students.
“The crowd was united, and they were there for one purpose,” he said. “There was such unity and love in that group.”
Two years later, Mottet had to convince King in a telephone conversation to travel to the Quad-Cities to receive the Pacem in Terris Award. King read news reports about record Mississippi River flooding in April 1965 and got nervous, Mottet said.
“He called me at midnight from L.A.,” Mottet said. “He said the news made it sound as though we were washed off the face of the Earth.”
Mottet first met King after he landed in the Quad-Cities.
“I saw him get off the plane and look out over the crowd,” Mottet said. “There were threats made on his life every day. He was looking for his assassin.”
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Jerry Jones wasn’t yet born in 1963, but he remembers learning about King in school.
“After spending so much time studying Lincoln and Washington, to have such an incredible role model who I could immediately identify with was such a watershed moment in my life,” Jones, 44, of Rock Island, said.
“King came up in January and February. But he’s such a hero in American history, it doesn’t make sense to relegate him to a month or a day.”
Jones said the “Dream” speech actually minimizes King’s impact.
“If we marginalize King to civil rights with regards to race, we would be missing the point that his position was evolving to eliminating poverty. In that regard, we are not making the progress we should be making at this point.”
Last year, Jones became chief operating officer for United Way of the Quad-Cities Area after serving 11 years as executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Rock Island.
Rev. Rogers Kirk
The Rev. Rogers Kirk, pastor of Third Missionary Baptist Church in Davenport, said, “Talk is cheap.” To live King’s legacy, people need to serve one another.
“We’re all our brother’s keeper,” Kirk said in a telephone interview last week from Liberia, a nation in West Africa where’s he’s helping to build a school in a poor, rural area.
Kirk grew up in Louisiana and remembers the “white only” and “colored only” signs, the different water fountains and the drug store counters he couldn’t eat at.
“I had to go to the back of the building to get my food,” he said. “We were treated so much differently.”
He watched King’s speech on a TV set at home.
“Every time I hear him speak, it stirs me,” he said. “That speech resonated with me. It’ll always be in my heart.”
Kirk quotes the “I Have a Dream” speech verbatim, much like children learn Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in school, he said.
Kirk said fully realizing King’s dream begins in the home.
“It’s not what other folks do to us, but what we do to ourselves,” he said.