In 1953, after my sophomore year at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, I left that lovely campus after being accepted into the USAF Cadet program. Four years later, as a first lieutenant, crew navigator, I requested and received an “early out” from the Air Force to complete my college education under the G.I. Bill. As a Baptist-founded university, but fully nondenominational, Bucknell had a requirement: In order to graduate, every student had to attend at least 15 nondenominational chapels on the campus, which for me meant that I had to attend almost all of them before graduating after the 1958 spring and summer sessions.
I was quite religious about my chapel attendance record, but today, almost 60 years later, there is only one of those many chapels that I vividly recall — and will never forget. It was late April 1958 and, as usual, I didn’t know who would be speaking, nor did I pay attention as the speaker was introduced. He began his comments in a low voice that I had to strain to hear. But he had what seemed to be a magnetism that drew the audience to his words. We all were listening intently. The intensity of his rhetoric increased gradually, and before he finished he was truly oratorical, with a booming voice that seemed to rattle the rafters.
I was awestruck and certainly not alone. I remember walking out of that chapel building stupefied, squinting in the bright sunlight. I simply had to know who that man was and asked whoever was next to me. The reply was, “Martin Luther King.”
In 2008, on the occasion of my 50th class reunion, I decided to revisit Bucknell for the first time. I particularly wanted to confirm my memory and made it a point to visit the campus library where I requested to see the microfilms of the university newspaper, The Bucknellian, for the spring of 1958. I soon found the reference, written by Jan Powers, May 1, 1958: “ Dr. King’s remarks were titled ‘The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life …’ ”
“Dr. King concluded by saying that we must love the Self to gain length but must not stop there. We should ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself” to gain breadth. The fulfillment of a complete life is an upward reach to God achieved by loving ‘The Lord thy God, with all thy heart, soul and mind.’ Every life must have its sky.”
I was happy and reinvigorated when I left that campus library having revisited King’s profound words from that long-ago day in 1958.
Still, it is deeply distressing for me that racism continues to flourish in America. Some of my fellow Americans are brazen and make no secret of their prejudices and animus for people of color — or different ethnicities and religions. But far too many conceal those prejudices and would deny them. In the sanctity of the voting booth or in private places among alike people they are free and unfettered. For them, I feel pity, and would urge that they take the time to first read the “Statement by Alabama Clergy,” which prompted King, while in jail, to write in pencil on the edges of newspapers, his response, which is titled “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
How anyone of good conscience can read that historically profound letter and not empathize and be moved by the immensity of his written logic and truthful eloquence is beyond me. For those of good conscience who haven’t read it, I urge you to spend a few minutes to do so. You will be rewarded, enriched and pleased that you did.
Merrett R. Stierheim is a former Miami-Dade county manager, former Miami city manager and Miami-Dade school superintendent.