Fifty-five years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
What you may not know is that he gave a very similar speech at Oakwood University in Huntsville. WZDX sat down with a former Oakwood student who was fortunate enough to see and hear the civil rights icon in person.
D. Tim McDonald moved to Huntsville from Pennsylvania in 1958 to attend what was then called Oakwood College.
“I’d never been south before, I’d heard many many stories about the south, many scary stories for African-Americans, or colored people as we were called back then,” said McDonald.
At that time the Civil Rights Movement was just gaining momentum. “Still in its infancy, even though the sit-ins had happened, and we got word that many of our brother and sister students from Alabama A&M were sitting in at lunch counters, and theaters and restaurants across the city. We weren’t allowed to do it, Oakwood in those days was very, like I said conservative,” explained McDonald.
So you could imagine his surprise, when the 22-year-old found out that the biggest leader of the Civil Rights Movement would be speaking at his school.
“It was major, I mean the campus was just on fire, that Dr. Martin Luther King was coming to Oakwood, people didn’t even know Oakwood, we were a rather small insignificant church-supported college but to have that kind of notoriety was big and as a student body we were just pumped it was fantastic,” McDonald said.
Oakwood College was the only venue which would allow King to speak. “I would say there were upwards of close to 3,000 people there. They were everywhere, inside the gym outside the gym, all around. Alabama A&M sent their band, and many of the church leaders in town were on the rostrum,” added McDonald.
On March 19, 1962, a year before King gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he gave a similar speech in the Oakwood auditorium.
“Many of the themes that he presented at the mall in Washington D-C a year later, you can hear on that tape in 1962, so you might say that we were his proving ground for his major speech,” explained McDonald.
McDonald said attending that speech mobilized him and his classmates to push for change in Huntsville, which was still segregated.
“After that speech some of us actually defied the administration and went down and sat in. I remember sitting in at the Woolworth 5 and 10 Cents Store cafeteria. We weren’t allowed to eat there as Blacks but we went there and we sat in on the lunch counter and they wouldn’t serve us,” McDonald said.
But following King’s visit, the tide began to turn.
“Integration in Huntsville came very rapidly, soon after, within probably a year I would say, I think you could eat anywhere in Huntsville, you could go anywhere, you could stay anywhere, you could ride anywhere, I think the vestiges of segregation vanished very quickly in Huntsville, most of it as a result of Dr. King’s speech,” McDonald explained.
On this 50th anniversary of the assassination Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., McDonald said his speech is as relevant today as it was in 1963.
“I think a lot of that has been accomplished but we still have a long way to go before we have full equality and full acceptance by blacks and whites,” he said.