MLK speaker to focus on power of stories

By Stephanie Short

In the early 1960s, a 12-year-old chubby black boy was shoved into a paddy-wagon and taken to a local jail for participating in a civil rights march organized by Martin Luther King Jr.

Five days later, the boy emerged from the jail hungry, emotionally exhausted and forever changed.

“I was knocked down physically,” said Freeman Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a prominent black educator. “I was never the same. I suppose you could say I lost my youth, my innocence.”

Hrabowski will be the keynote speaker during UK’s observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Sunday at 5 p.m. in room 230 of the Student Center. He is also the keynote speaker for Lexington’s commemorative program at 11 a.m. Monday in Heritage Hall downtown.

Hrabowski was raised in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. Hrabowski said he attempted to shut out some of events from his youth for a while because most of the memories were so painful.

“For years I didn’t want to think about it,” he said. “I didn’t start to think about it until I was asked to write an article.”

Hrabowski wrote an essay, “The Role of Youth in the Civil Rights Movement: Reflections on Birmingham,” in 1996 after recounting his experience of growing up in Birmingham.

“Certain childhood memories remain vivid — from the uplifting spirituals we continue to hear in our heads over and over to the terror of the police dogs and fire hoses,” he wrote in his essay.

During 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed one of Birmingham’s most prominent black churches, the 16th Street Baptist Church. Hrabowski was devastated to discover one of his close friends, and three other young girls, died in the bombing.

“I’ll never forget that Sunday morning in church at Sixth Avenue Baptist, when our minister, Reverend Porter, announced that our sister church had been bombed,” he wrote in his essay. “Congregation members immediately left their seats, in a state of shock, because our relatives and friends belonged to that church.”

Despite childhood trials, Hrabowski knew he had something he needed to do with his life.

“I was given so much love as a child from parents, neighbors, my church and teachers that I felt like I had a special mission in life,” Hrabowski said. “My mission is to inspire young people to be their best.”

As president of a college, Hrabowski said he enjoys the constant interaction with students.

“Each of us has a story that can inspire others,” he said.

“I will talk about the power of stories,” he said. “The more you talk about it, the more you focus on the people and events in your life, the more you will learn.”

Chester Grundy, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Programming, designed and is coordinating the program. He said he hopes Hrabowski’s speech will inspire possibilities.

“Our goal in presenting Dr. Hrabowski is to put before our community people who, like Dr. King, will remind us of our best possibilities — what we as a nation can be if we truly commit ourselves to the vision of what Dr. King called ‘The Beloved Community,’ a society based on the ideals of real democracy, brotherhood, peace and fairness,” he said.