Eldridge “Skip” Gilbert sat near the fireplace at Jim’s Steakhouse for most of a recent Thursday afternoon. I had called him for a phone interview about his memories of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at Illinois Wesleyan 51 years ago. But Gilbert insisted on driving from his Rockford home for the conversation. It was that important to him.
This is hard to believe, but Gilbert was the only African-American among 386 students in the IWU class of 1967. He also was one of the first blacks I had ever met. I, too, was an IWU student, having grown up near Minonk where we were all white, where diversity was defined by the town’s single Jewish family.
More than 3,000 people stood to applaud King when he took the stage inside old Fred Young Fieldhouse the night of Feb. 10, 1966. I was among them, not because I was invested in the cause, but because I thought I should take the opportunity to hear first-hand from the man who helped win passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Gilbert was a student government leader (“I was Mr. Diversity,” he says) and charged with arranging a prominent black for a lecture series. The connection with King came through a family friend, Ralph David Abernathy, who was present at the IWU speech with his wife and King’s wife, Coretta.
I’m ashamed to admit most of King’s speech buzzed over my head (I possibly glazed over when he mentioned “Aristotelian syllogism” and quoted Shakespeare), but years later I came to appreciate its beauty (you can hear it at iwu.edu/mlk) and its ultimate optimism. “…The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” he said. Yet 784 days later, King was dead.
Gilbert was in the middle of a 28-month Peace Corps tour in west Africa when King was assassinated. Today, he sees King’s 1966 speech (King also spoke at IWU in 1961) as the start of a dialogue that delivered some diversity to the institution.
“The excuse was always, ‘We can’t find students who can qualify academically,’ but in truth it wasn’t an academic risk they were unwilling to take. It was a social risk,” Gilbert says. “I didn’t realize that at the time. I should have.”
He launched a petition drive that brought change to IWU. As he graduated, there were more than 30 blacks in the incoming class. “They were academically acceptable, in some cases superior, to the students that were here,” he says. “And they had come from different parts of the country, bringing different perspectives to the campus, making the quality of student life more favorable.”
Not everyone is satisfied with progress since then. At a teach-in on the King holiday last month, Nicole Brown, a visiting sociology professor and 1999 IWU graduate, said the school is “not that much ideologically different than when Dr. King was here.” And Gilbert worries too much of the annual King celebration has become an entertainment event and that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech “is abused as if he spoke nothing else.”
If you’re looking for a thread of historic importance to King’s 1966 speech here, it can perhaps be found in a brief foreshadowing of his strong disapproval of the Vietnam War, opposition that sacrificed his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson.
At IWU, he almost parenthetically urged “a negotiated settlement of the crisis in Vietnam.” Fourteen months later he called the war “an enemy of the poor” that claimed American lives, and a “demonic, destructive suction tube” that drained resources from anti-poverty programs.
It was a message that could apply generations later. So, too, his confidence that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
We can hope.