Dr. Freeman Hrabowski spoke at Trinity University as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative lecture. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

The late civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has inspired millions with his crusade for equal rights, but on a day in 1963, King’s words reached a 12-year-old boy growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama.

“What you do this day will have an impact on generations yet unborn,” King told Freeman Hrabowski III.

More than 50 years have passed since that encounter, but the words still resonate with Hrabowski, who today serves as president at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Hrabowski shared his experiences as a civil rights and education advocate with the public during the “Holding Fast to Our Dreams Empowers Our Future” lecture held Thursday evening at Trinity University.

Educators are obligated to work toward academic advancement for everyone, not just one group of people, he told the audience.

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski spoke at Trinity University as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative lecture. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski spoke at Trinity University as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative lecture. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

According to Hrabowski, only 10% of Americans received a college education during the 1960s.

“Today, two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees,” he said. “We must use our experiences to push us.”

The country will benefit with a higher number of educated citizens, “But we need to give people different options; we must rethink our mindset,” he said.

He has led UMBC since 1992 and serves as a science and math education consultant to national agencies, universities, and school systems. Hrabowski still gets goose bumps from solving math problems, “but at the same time, I enjoy reading T. S. Eliot and Emily Brontë.”

Hrabowski has many accomplishments as an author and educator, but it was his experiences in the Children’s Crusade of 1963 that riveted the 250 audience members at Laurie Auditorium.

The crusade saw hundreds of local students marching to downtown Birmingham in protest of segregation. Many students encountered police intimidation along the way, others were arrested, but the event helped bring the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hrabowski recalled his reluctance to attend church the day before the march. “But my parents placated me with the things I loved most, food and math,” he said.

A man spoke to the church congregation, and urged the children in the audience to come to a demonstration the next day.

“A guy at the church said if the children participate in this protest, all of America will understand that even our babies will know the difference between right and wrong,” Hrabowski said.

That speaker was Dr. King.

“I went home, and I said to my parents, ‘I want to participate in this march,’”said Hrabowski. His parents told him not to enter the Children’s Crusade because it would be dangerous, supporters would be jailed.

Dr. Hrabowski spoke at Trinity University Thursday night. “The values that we hold will become what we are,” he said. Image courtesy Trinity University.
Dr. Hrabowski spoke at Trinity University Thursday night. “The values that we hold will become what we are,” he said. Image courtesy Trinity University.

“I said to them, ‘You guys are hypocrites.’ At that time, you did not tell your parents they were hypocrites,” he added

Finally, his parents relented and told him: ‘If you want to do this, we will put you in God’s hands.’”

The reality was more frightening than he imagined.

“I spent a week in jail. It was a terrible experience,” Hrabowski said. “But this is the lesson I learned: Number one, no time to be a victim. Number two, we were empowered to think about our future.”

But what happened next demoralized the young bookworm even more. All the students who participated in the demonstration were kicked out of school.

“The board of education suspended us,” he said. “The principal was devastated because he had no choice but to put us out of school.”

Hrabowski said his school’s principal brought dignity to the board’s disgrace.

“He called the entire school together, as if it was an honor society meeting. And he used the honor society induction ceremony to call every child who had gone to jail to the stage,” he said. “The audience (in the school) gave us a standing ovation.”

Laurie Auditorium echoed with the sounds of applause.

Hrabowski spoke fondly of his mother. The more she read, the better a reader she became, and the more proficient a reader she became, the more she enjoyed the experience. Is it any wonder she became a teacher and Hrabowski, in turn, became an educator?

“My mother told me that ‘teachers touch eternity through their students.’ Nothing is more important in our lives than building relationships,” he said.

Hrabowski has co-written and published several books including “Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males,” and “Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women.” He quoted extensively from his most recent book, “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement.”

TIME magazine named him one of America’s 10 Best College Presidents in 2009. In 2012, TIME listed him as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Also in 2012, President Obama appointed him to chair the National Education Commission. Hrabowski regularly provides counsel for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Hrabowski liked to quote Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and other poets. He paraphrased a quote from Mahatma Gandhi.

“Watch your thoughts, they become words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your character. And your character becomes your destiny,” he said.

Parents and educators have a duty for the destiny of our youth.

“The values that we hold will become what we are,” he said.

Click here to view the lecture at Trinity Tiger Network.

*Top Image: Dr. Freeman Hrabowski spoke at Trinity University as part of  the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative lecture.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone 

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Don Mathis

Don Mathis

Don’s life revolves around the many poetry circles in San Antonio. His poems have been published in many anthologies and periodicals and broadcasted on local TV and national radio. In addition to poetry,...