The El Paso train station cafe was just a few yards across the lobby, but the tired mother and her hungry children weren’t allowed to step inside.
“Whites Only,” said the sign. It was the first time that Ronald Coleman saw his mother cry.
That journey from San Francisco to Louisiana in 1954 always stayed with him as a reminder of why countless everyday heroes risked their lives, and, in many cases, gave their lives, in the fight for civil rights.
Three decades later, when Coleman stood in front of a crowded University of Utah classroom to teach his first course about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., he knew that if even one student remembered King’s legacy a decade later, then he’d done his job.
“To retain the message years down the road — that’s what’s important,” he says. “Because the gift of Dr. King is so much more than a 30-second soundbite. It’s a message that should resonate in the hearts and minds of all Americans. There is still a lot of work to be done.”
With that thought in mind, Coleman, 67, a University of Utah history professor for almost 40 years, met me for a Free Lunch of grilled salmon and clam chowder at the Market Street Grill in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day next week.
His association with the U. goes back to 1963, when he came to Utah from San Francisco to play on the football team as a running back. He lived on campus, but some of his teammates with young families had trouble finding apartments because of their skin color. When Charles Nabors, the university’s first African-American professor, urged him and other players to march for fair housing legislation, Coleman jumped in.
“Dr. Nabors told us that we had a sense of responsibility,” he says, “and he was right. Until then, I hadn’t been that actively involved. I read Ebony and Jet magazine, so I knew about the struggle for civil rights. But this was the first time I’d done something about it.”
As a child, Coleman heard some of Martin Luther King’s speeches on the radio and he later saw him speak at an anti-war rally at California State University.
“The day he was killed, I was student-teaching at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento,” he says. “Somebody ran in and told us and you could just feel the shock. I went home that day, numb.”
Later, as a professor specializing in African-American history, Coleman studied King’s life extensively, writing a pamphlet about the civil rights leader to hand out every semester, along with copies of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It’s a wonderful address,” he says, “but today, we only hear the soundbite about ‘I have a dream,’ and the rest of the speech is ignored. There’s nothing about the context in which his words were uttered, so we don’t feel the sense of urgency of the time. It’s a shame. We’ve lost an appreciation for the times and the era, and what people sacrificed to get to where we are today.”
When Coleman reflects on the teachings of Martin Luther King, he also remembers other “sheroes and heroes” whose names have for the most part been forgotten.
“I think about James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — young civil rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi,” he says. “And nobody today talks about Miss Viola Liuizo, a Detroit housewife who was killed while transporting a group of protesters to Montgomery, Ala.
"These people sacrificed their lives for the greater good. We’re a better nation because of them. To me, that’s what Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was all about.”
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