The University Record, January 28, 1998

Page: 'Keep your eyes on the prize'

Clarence Page was the featured speaker at the Business School's commemoration of Martin Luther King Day. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

Columnist Clarence Page addressed a standing-room-only audience in Hale Auditorium. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Kerry Colligan

"What is so great about Martin Luther King is that he provided a model for the [human rights] struggle," began Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune and keynote speaker at the Business School's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration "A Drum Major for Justice." "America has been a model, it has given light to the world and has helped to give flight to the world, and Martin Luther King was such a key part of that, and that is what we are celebrating here today."

In response to what he calls the "annual seance"--the week in mid-January when speakers are called upon to talk about what King would have said about today's society, or about what he would be fighting for--Page let King's words do the talking. He did not analyze the "I Have a Dream" speech, nor regale the 400-member audience with "If Dr. King were alive today" imagery. Page read from what he called the "rougher" parts of "I Have a Dream," the parts focusing on the urgency of the task and the importance of assembling a biracial army to defeat segregation. He gave a history lesson, speaking about his experiences growing up, where society is today, and his prescriptions for changing the future.

About one year after Emmitt Till was beaten and lynched in Mississippi, Page went to Birmingham to visit relatives. He and his mother went shopping and Page, only 7 years old, went looking for a water fountain. "And when I found it, there were two. And one had a sign that read 'White,' and the other a sign that read 'Colored.' So I ran over to the 'Colored' fountain and turned on the water, and was disappointed to see the water was clear like the water up north. That was back when we were colored. Today we're people of color. Progress."

That progress has led us to "a new economic divide," according to Page. "Politically we are in an era of stalemate and backlash. Socially, we are in an era of resegregation." As is his custom, Page shared an anecdote from a recent trip to Washington, D.C. "If there was ever a place where integration should have worked, it's Washington, D.C. You've got more educated Black folks per capita than any place on the planet . . . and yet on Friday evenings, at these two bars down the street . . . the Black folks go to one bar and the white folks go to the other."

When he and a colleague asked patrons of the respective bars if they would consider a Friday afternoon across the street, they received telling responses. "They dance over there, don't they?" "It's Friday night now, I've been diverse all week. The game is over."

In short, Page said, "We've got a lot of work to do. As a country preacher said, 'What the mind can conceive, and the heart can believe, your body can achieve.' Keep your eyes on the prize."

Page's prescription for change

In his Martin Luther King Day address, Clarence Page agreed with John Hope Franklin's recent statement that the problem of the 21st century will continue to be the color line. "He may very well be right. The line is shifting, but the line is still there," Page said, then outlined his prescription for change.

  • The problem of racism should be viewed as something like alcoholism. "You confess, 'I have a problem. You get past denial."
  • We must view education as the new civil right. "Somewhere along the line I think we have dropped the ball on our Black youths when a recent poll of public school teachers showed 45 percent did not think their students had a chance of getting into college. If teachers have given up hope on their students, then what can we expect the rest of society to feel?"
  • We need honest dialogue and a new agenda.
  • "Fight racism. Fight racism. We need to be anti-racist because whether or not you are a racist, you can benefit from white privilege. For example, if somebody tells an anti-Black off-color joke around you, the proper response for a white person is to say, 'Oh you must think I'm white.'"
  • "Let us find common ground through common interests. We do it every day . . . We have a great Black-Jewish coalition right now, it's called U.S. Congress."
  • We must prepare for the multicultural century that is before us, and we must approach the future with a sense of divine dissatisfaction.