Stressing the centrality of hope and “having the hard conversations,” Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), gave the inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture at Sanders Theatre on Wednesday evening.
Sixty years after King spoke to Harvard Law School students about “The Future of Integration,” Hrabowski discussed his own history with the Civil Rights leader as well as the ongoing struggle to bring equity and inclusion into academia, particularly science, engineering, and technology.
Harvard chief diversity and inclusion officer Sherri Ann Charleston and President Larry Bacow introduced Hrabowski and later presented the educational advocate with a statuette commemorating the occasion. “He treats others with great care and curiosity. He nurtures talent into leadership. Most important, he leads leaders,” Bacow said. “This is a man who not only speaks truth to us today but who has spoken truth all his life.”
Hrabowski began his lecture by tying the present day to the past. “My students often say things have never been this bad. I respond, ‘Let’s go back to the ’60s,’” he said. Noting that he could be talking about “the 1860s or the 1960s,” he harkened back to King’s time, saying, “Those of us who know that period must tell our stories.”
Hrabowski then recounted being a 12-year-old in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, the year after King’s Harvard speech. King and other Civil Rights leaders were recruiting children to brave police batons, attack dogs, and blasts from fire hoses and march to protest segregation in Birmingham. “All of America will know that even our children know the difference between right and wrong,” Hrabowski recalled King saying. Although he was at the time a self-described “math nerd,” who wanted nothing more than to work on complex problems, he joined the more than 1,000 young people in the demonstration, which was dubbed the Children’s Crusade. “I did go,” he said. “I did march.” Despite the protestors’ youth — they were 8 to 18 years old — hundreds were arrested. “I spent five horrible but empowering days in jail,” Hrabowski recalled.