ADA — Jan. 11, 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before a packed Taft Gymnasium on the Ohio Northern University Campus, a few months before an assassin’s bullet struck him down in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
The event drew students, faculty and the media to hear the civil rights leader.
“That visit not only left an indelible impression on those who were present in Taft Gymnasium, it also remains a source of institutional pride in the continuing call to action on issues of diversity and social justice. The words he spoke here and elsewhere during his remarkable life inspired so many at ONU and in our nation,” said Dan Dibiasio, president of Ohio Northern University.
“Because those words gave voice to the vision to racial harmony, social justice and civil rights, we are grateful for his gifts and that he shared them on this campus 50 years ago. While Dr. King’s words inspired Americans to make greater progress toward ending racism and racial injustice we know that others use words to divide and deter us toward those noble goals. From marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the nations leader, we’ve recently heard words of discord and division regarding race … all the more reason to recall the words that Dr. King spoke here in 1968 and be inspired by them in 2018,” Dibiasio said.
Some of those who were there, 50 years ago, gathered in the Freed Center Thursday to discuss their experience.
Floyd Keith was on the ONU football team and witnessed Dr. King’s speech.
“At the time he was on the news and I certainly knew of his name, I knew what he stood for and the changes that he brought into this country. I just came to see him. I can’t sit here and say that I totally understood everything that the man had to say because, now after I’ve heard the message again and replayed this in the last month and a half I keep saying to myself, man he was so deep, what was I thinking? I could have caught so much more from him than I did,” said Keith.
For black students on the ONU campus, the discrimination was real.
“Black students, by and large, were invisible at Ohio Northern University. We could not join sororities or fraternities. There might have been one fraternity that would allow black students in. Even Jewish students had to have their own fraternity. We were not represented on the student council, how could we be? We were not ingratiated by the professors. People didn’t socialize with us,” said Sadika White, who spoke to the audience via Skype.
“I think it’s important to remember that was a day, very different than a day like today because there were so many pressures on young people on campus including the Vietnam War, including the draft, including trying to graduate and the fact that the so-called black problem was a problem somewhere else. It really, for most of us, was not a ‘problem’ in Ada. We had never been to Selma, Alabama. We had never been to Birmingham, didn’t think we ever would go there, but we knew that we, very likely would be drafted and go to Vietnam and be killed,” said Bob Roberts, a sophomore at ONU in 1968.
“In reality, walking into the gym that day was much different than walking out of the gym that day, so to say what was the feeling on campus that day, I don’t think it’s fair. I think a good question is what was the feeling before we went in and what was the feeling when we came out,” said Roberts.
On April 17, Ohio Northern University will unveil a bronze statue of Dr. King to commemorate his visit to Ada more than 50 years ago.
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.