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Texoma students, leaders look back at King's dream

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Students read from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream speech" during Monday's MLK Day celebrations.

Texoma leaders and community members paid tribute to the life and work of famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Monday when Austin College held it annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations with speakers talking about the continued fight for civil rights and the steps leaders like King took to achieve that goal.

Since 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been recognized on the third Monday of January. Since 2000, the federal holiday has been recognized in all 50 states.

"In the march on Washington in 1963, Dr. King shared his dream for America, with America," said Sherman Assistant City Manager Terrence Steele who served as Monday's keynote speaker. "Dr. King was the passionate voice that awakened the conscience of the nation and inspired people from all over the world. The power of his words resonated because he was a person that had an unwavering belief in freedom, justice, equality and opportunity for all."

This is the 17th year that Austin College has held an event honor the civil rights icon. In years past, the event has taken the form of a breakfast with guest speakers along with speeches by AC students on the impact of King's work in their lives. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic led leaders to reformat the event as a smaller gathering that was broadcast online for viewers at home.

Austin College student Victoria Gilbert speaks during the college's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.

This year's student address was given by Victoria Gilbert, who is the president of the college's first book club. Gilbert spoke about her relationship with literature and how the very ability to read is something that previous generations in her family were not blessed with.

"It is because of my path that I can appreciate from which I come. I did not always love literature. My fears and shortcomings with the subject have come a long way."

Gilbert said she struggled with reading when she was in school. She tried to suppress her insecurity by using large, fancy words but often hid from her trouble.

"I wanted to come across as articulate, intelligent, put together and proficient in every subject," she said. "I wanted to be more than the diversity bused in from the south side of town."

Looking back, Gilbert said her story mirrored that of her family members, particularly her grandmother and great uncle, who both were illiterate. 

"When I found out that my grandmother and great uncle were unable to read and write, I questioned how they survived in a time where literacy was a privilege and not a prerequisite to a person's quality of life," she said.

Despite this setback, Gilbert said both family members were able to overcome it and live successful lives. Her great uncle became the first certified African American pastry chef after working his way up the ladder from being a busboy. 

Her grandmother, who learned to read and write within Gilbert's lifetime, served as a nurse and later opened a salon of her own.

"Society may have failed them of a quality education, but they still found the means to make something of themselves despite the adversity they faced."

Sherman Assistant City Manager Terrence Steele speaks during Austin College's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.

For his part, Steele said King's dream was still alive in 2021, but wasn't quite there yet. The nation has come a long way from when segregation and discrimination were legal, but there is still work to do.

"Dr. King was born in a time when he could only sit in the balcony and watch a movie — and that was in some movies. There were others he wasn't even allowed to," Steele said.

Steele said one of the first times he encountered racism in his childhood hometown of Birmingham, Alabama was when he bumped into someone, who then referred to him as a racial expletive.

"I didn't know the word, but I could tell just listening that it wasn't good," he said.

Steele can still vividly remember the nightly news casts of young college students protesting for civil rights and being attacked and suppressed for it.

While protests for justice and equality are still going on more than 50 years later,  Steele said the faces behind the movement are changing. Where many of the protestors of the 1960s were black, the protesters of 2020 came from a wider background and racial makeup. 

"You are that generation that doesn't matter of a person's color," Steele said. "...You are that generation that I think Dr. King was talking about when he talked about his speech, 'I Have a Dream'."