King's message transformed Virgin Islanders
Published: August 28, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Although the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech sounded throughout the Washington Mall on this date in 1963, his words still resonate throughout the country 50 years later.
Since his speech, his words have maintained their power and relevance in a nation that continues to teach those words to its children.
Still, no one likely will hear those words the same as some of the people who heard them when they first were spoken.
Three Virgin Islanders told their stories of where they were and who they were when they first heard the "I have a dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963.
In the summer of 1963, the Rev. Wesley Williams was a 20-year-old idealist studying French literature at Harvard University, one of the few black students attending the Ivy League school at the time.
He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, but he did know that he did not want to miss what he recognized then, and recognizes now, as one of the most profound speeches in American, if not world, history.
It was a hot day in Washington, D.C., recalled Williams, now a 70-year-old vicar of two Episcopal churches on St. Thomas. One of the Christian civil rights groups he was involved in had asked him to be a marshal for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or what is now known simply as the March on Washington.
Williams, who had met and listened to King, knew that King would be giving a speech at the end of the march, so Williams agreed. He had always found King's words to be deliberate, inspiring and biblical.
"He was a giant of a man," Williams said.
Williams still remembers wearing laced shoes, a white shirt, black pants and a "funny-looking hat," which organizers required him to wear so that he looked official. His job was to keep the crowd in line.
"Everyone was in their Sunday best," Williams said.
Estimates numbered the crowd between 200,000 and 300,000, most of whom were black. The march was very peaceful and ended at the Lincoln Memorial, where the crowd packed in to hear the speech everyone was waiting for.
"It chokes me up to even think of it, to this day," Williams said.
King's speech, known for its spiritual tone, its "I Have a Dream" improvisation and for its sounding cry of "free at last," went down in history.
"Every phrase was met with riotous applause. Here I am from a very cerebral world, and all of a sudden I find myself in the midst of a Southern revival," he said.
"We were among saints of the current day," he said.
From that day on, Williams knew he had been present for a day that would go down in history. He continued his education and continued his involvement with civil rights. He lives on St. Thomas now and is the president and chief operating officer of Lockhart Companies Inc.
King's words still find their way into Williams' Sunday sermons in church.
Marilyn Krigger, 73, was a history teacher at Charlotte Amalie High School in the summer of 1963, the same year that the College of the Virgin Islands - now the University of the Virgin Islands - enrolled its first class.
She recalls hearing the speech and hoping that the speech would go down in history and would change the nation, because she had experienced discrimination first-hand when she moved to the states during college.
She could not attend the event herself, she said, but she knew of several people from the territory who flew to Washington, D.C., to be a part of it.
"There were so many people in the Virgin Islands that knew of the need for the march and the speech," said Krigger, now a professor emeritus at UVI.
That year, Krigger had been home in St. Thomas for several years after she returned from Atlanta, Ga., where she had enrolled at Spelman College, an all-black women's college, in the late 1950s. One of her professors was King's older sister, Christine.
"I feel like I may have graduated too early," said Krigger, who finished her schooling in 1959 and returned to the territory.
In the years after Krigger left Spelman, the students began to partake in the sit-ins and protests that started to take over the South, and the nation.
She was envious, as she had experienced her own run-ins with discrimination, which she said she never will forget. She wished she could have made a bigger statement in their wake.
"One time I got on the bus, and I went to the first empty seat, like I would have done in St. Thomas, but it was next to a white man," Krigger said. "He put his foot up on the seat, and shouted to the bus driver."
Krigger said the man called her the n-word, and the bus driver told her to head to the back of the bus, where other black people told her to come join them and comforted her.
"I was so scared. I was frozen. I didn't know," she said. "Being from here, I was not aware of that."
Another time, she bought a soda in a store and sat down to drink it inside before the cashier told her to go outside to drink it. She was so startled, she forgot her soda.
The third incident that stuck out in her mind, Krigger said, was when she asked her friends to go with her to a church for white people. When she and her friends arrived at the church, the ushers quickly came to the door and told her and her friends to leave.
"In many ways the nation has done a lot better, but we're still not quite where we need to be," Krigger said.
In years since the speech, she has discussed with her students the messages that King shared. Always, the messages seem to resonate with the students, she said.
"He had a unique way of speaking, but he still was true to himself," Krigger said. "I don't think that there are many speeches that have been replayed like that one."
Today, Delegate Donna Christensen is the Virgin Islands' representative in Congress, but in the summer of 1963, she was a medical student at St. Mary's College, across from the University of Notre Dame, near South Bend, Ind.
Though she was unable to attend the march and the speech, she heard every word that King preached and hoped youths like her would hear.
"I was one of the few black people at St. Mary's and Notre Dame, and we kind of felt apart from the campus. The whole atmosphere changed after that summer," Christensen said.
The students and faculty from both schools reached out to their black students, who in turn reached out to the community, recognizing the power they had to help realize King's dream.
"The message was profound. The delivery was profound. The fact that he was able to galvanize the country - not many people are able to make change just by talking," Christensen said.
Christensen eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where she attended George Washington University. She met King a few times at rallies protesting against the war in Vietnam, and in May 1968 she joined the Poor People's Campaign, an effort that King had organized prior to his death on April 4, 1968.
The campaign was an effort to eliminate the wealth gap in the country, advocate for health care for those who could not afford it, and ensure that all people had a shot at justice and equality, Christensen said.
She skipped studying for her board exams, and instead helped care for people in the area who needed her medical assistance - a decision that she said made her a better person and put her on the path she is on today.
"I don't know that what we needed to do then is any different than what we have to do to now," she said. "There's still a lot of injustice and inequality."
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.