A university president who, at 10 years old, marched for civil rights with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called on Syracuse students in the Carrier Dome Sunday to “find a way to help” ensure that all children have the opportunity for a high quality education.
“We as universities have a role to play,” said Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “so that when people look back on us 50 years from now in 2064, they will say that those people at Syracuse, those people at UMBC understood that they were doing well themselves, but they needed to find a way to help those who didn't have what we had.”
Hrabowski spoke to a crowd of 1,900 people, including Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud and U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei (NY-24), as part of the university’s 29th annual celebration of King’s birthday. Organizers titled this year’s event, “Pursuing the Dream: Above All Odds.”
Upon taking the stage, Hrawbowski said he asked Syverud to turn on the lights, which had been dimmed, so he was able to see everyone’s faces in the crowd. He said, with a laugh, that he could never stop being a teacher and connecting with people. Hrabowski has been president of UMBC since 1992, and in 2012 President Barack Obama appointed him chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
Syeisha Byrd, who chaired the event’s organizing committee said choosing the speaker is one the most important parts of the planning process, which started last August. “Hrabowski’s connected to Martin Luther King,” said Byrd in an interview. “He’s marched with him, so he has first-hand experience. You don’t meet too many people that have that anymore.”
Throughout his speech, Hrabowski illustrated his words with stories of people he has known. His point, he said, was to show how education has the power to transform lives and take people out of poverty.
“Each of us has a story,” said Hrabowski. One story was about a former student of his whose drug addicted parents left him. He was eventually placed in a group home, but overcame the odds to graduate from college and from graduate school and today works in the State Department.
Hrabowski also told his own story. When he was 10 years old, he participated in a peaceful demonstration led by King in Birmingham, Ala. Hrabowski was spat on and thrown in jail by the police chief for his peaceful protest, but he said King reminded him that what they were doing will have an impact on children everywhere and in future generations.
In an interview, Hrabowski said he wants to change the culture of teaching science and engineering so that kids won’t think they can’t do it, and so that more students will pursue those fields. Returning to the subject in his speech, he said he hopes children can dream that one day they can be the first person of color to win the Nobel Prize in a science field, something that still has not happened.
The event included performances and presentations by various university groups. Abdou Rahaman Diakite, president of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity—a national organization to which King belonged and Hrabowski is a member—presented Hrabowski with a ceramic plate as an expression of gratitude for his participation in the event. Freshman Malik Evans accompanied him and said later that the speech really hit home for him. “It makes me want to be a better person,” said Evans. “I’m blessed to be around so much positivity.”
In keeping with the King celebration tradition, the committee named four local residents as Unsung Heroes: Joseph Bryant, board president of the South Side Community Coalition; Debra L. Person, founder and director of Exodus 3 Ministries; Georgia A. Popoff, an active member in arts education and developing youth writing in the area; and Dorothy “Dottie” Russell, who works in the Schine Dining Center.