Oakwood and Dr. King
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
Almost 50 years ago, on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. It seems unlikely that many humans, at least in the western hemisphere, have not heard of this speech.
What is less known is that a year and a half earlier, on March 19, 1962, King gave a very similar speech at Oakwood College, (now Oakwood University). In a video available at https://www.oakwood.edu/news/news-archives/259-2012-news/1563-ou-professor-remembers-martin-luther-king-jr, Tim Reid, of Huntsville’s WAY31 news, says that when King visited Huntsville that spring, Oakwood was the only venue which would allow him to speak. It was a seminal moment in the lives of hundreds who heard him.
Dr. Mervyn Warren, Dean of the School of Religion and Theology at Oakwood, remembers the occasion well. “To see him, to hear him in person, was one of the highlights of my life,” Dr. Warren says. He has saved mementoes, including a program signed by King, which he considers “an heirloom, something so historical and so important that it means forever—that the name of Dr. Martin Luther King and Oakwood university would forever be married together.”
Dr. Warren owns a vintage recording of the speech, part of which can be heard at the above link. It will immediately be clear how very similar the Oakwood speech was to the Lincoln Memorial speech. Warren even wrote his doctoral dissertation on King and his influence. He calls King “ a national and international figure who was speaking as a conscience to the nation.”
Fifty years later, everything has changed. . . and nothing has changed. Or perhaps it would be better to say that everything has changed except human nature. There were millions at the time who were loving and compassionate and millions who were hateful. And millions more were simply “asleep at the wheel,” unaware of either the true feelings and beliefs that controlled their actions or of the facts of life as lived by those just down the road from themselves.
Within the denomination of Seventh-day Adventists, this is just as true. There are chilling stories of apathy or outright collusion in various atrocities and genocides, and stories of courage and compassion lived out at the risk of death. Sometimes our individuals and institutions have been part of the problem. Fifty years after “I Have a Dream,” fifty-one years after the same vision was cast in a gymnasium at Oakwood, let’s honor those who are and have been part of the solution instead. Let’s vow that we will walk in those footsteps. Ultimately, let’s walk in the footsteps of Christ, who also has a Dream bigger than we can imagine.
Dr. Warren’s book on Dr. King’s life, King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may be found on Amazon.