Lecture highlights book about March on Washington, RU contributions to Civil Rights Movement

Lecture highlights book about March on Washington, RU contributions to Civil Rights Movement

By Kevinisha Walker


The St. Clair Drake Center for African and African American Studies hosted a lecture about the March on Washington and civil rights last Monday. The lecture highlighted some of Roosevelt University’s student and faculty involvement in the march and the Civil Rights Movement.

University President Charles Middleton said that the lecture is a result of the million dollar initiative that was announced for the center last fall.

“This is a very special occasion … and is the first evidence of the success of [last year’s] initiative,” Middleton said.

It was held in the Murray-Green Library and featured Will Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, as guest lecturer.

While Jones lectured during most of the event, St. Clair Drake Center staff and Middleton honored former Roosevelt student, Bennett Johnson, for his role in the March on Washington.

“We are honoring [Johnson] today with this lecture for his role in organizing the Chicago contingent of the 1963 March on Washington, a day that is one of the pivotal moments in American history in the 20th century,” Middleton said.

Johnson did not graduate from Roosevelt, but credits his time there as “a defining point.”

“It was a time in my life where I realized some of the deep-seated problems of race relations in the United States,” Johnson said.

Jones, a history professor, talked about his newly published book “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights” at the lecture, as well.

Jones’ book also highlights some of the young, black leaders who contributed to the movement.

Some of the leaders Jones highlights include A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Jones said that the university’s former sociology professor, St. Clair Drake, also lectured about and contributed to the Civil Rights Movement.

Drake was a sociology professor at Roosevelt and one of the university’s first black faculty members.

Prior to his stint at the university, he was a doctoral student in the University of Chicago’s anthropology program. While there, Drake helped to organize sit-ins and served as a voice for black men in the military who experienced discrimination.

His 23-year-long career at Roosevelt ended in 1969 when he left to chair the African American Studies program at Stanford University.

Even though Drake left Roosevelt, some argue that he was always part of the university’s community. The university even named a research center after him.

A Drake family friend, Amy Untemeyer, attended the lecture and read a letter written by the sociology professor’s son, Karl Drake. In the letter, Drake’s son said that while his father’s time at the university ended after 23 years, he always felt a strong connection to the institution.

“Of course, he appreciated the resources available to him [at Stanford] and the many opportunities to shape one of the first African American studies programs in history,” the letter read. “But in truth, he would’ve been happier had he remained at Roosevelt and would’ve returned in a moment had circumstances been different.”

The sociology professor may have taken his ideas to the groundbreaking program at Stanford, but he left many of his lectures at Roosevelt.

In fact, many of them would’ve gone unnoticed had they not been discovered by the Murray-Green Library staff.

After discovering several tapes in one of the library’s closets, St. Clair Drake Center Associate Director Erik Gellman said the library staff found some of the tapes to be Drake’s recordings.

“Among the recordings were the St. Clair Drake lectures of 1963 on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation,” said University Librarian Richard Uttich via email. “I immediately recognized the importance of these lectures and soon realized that they had not otherwise been available for the past 50 years.”

The tapes were not played during the lecture, but Gellman said that the library staff plans to make them available on their website soon.

While Jones does not feature Drake in his book, he said Drake’s lectures were “lost pieces of art that contemplate freedom and emancipation and how they relate to the American Dream.”

Jones also talked about how Drake’s speeches resonated with a similar speech about black people and the American Dream—Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“It’s very likely that Drake was thinking about King when he made his speech,” Jones said. “But King delivered it first in Florida in 1961.”

Some people don’t know that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech didn’t originate at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.

Regardless, they might remember it for being “optimistic and forgiving” or for evoking “interracial harmony and national reconciliation,” Jones said.

Jones also noted that Drake’s speech balances King’s out with a “biting skepticism” as Drake begins his speech with, “We have gone to the bank of justice and our check has come back marked insufficient funds.”

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