Sierra College hosts forum with MLK march participants

On 50th anniversary of King speech, civil rights lawyers recall the day that inspired their careers
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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ROCKLIN - Some 200 students and community members, drawn together by common interest, occupied the Dietrich Theatre at Sierra College on Wednesday for a discussion about the civil rights movement. As such, it was an appropriate crowd for the occasion – a remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech on its 50th anniversary, led by two civil rights lawyers who saw it firsthand.

The forum followed the college’s re-enactment of the famous march on Washington, D.C., at which an estimated 250,000 people assembled outside the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, to watch King deliver his now-legendary speech. Sociology professor Jennifer Kattman estimated more than 1,000 people participated in the re-enactment on Wednesday, circling the Rocklin campus while carrying replicas of signs that appear in old photographs of the 1963 march.

Among the participants were retired civil rights lawyers Tom Hunt and his wife, Eleanor, recruited from Santa Barbara by Kattman to lead the forum and share their story, in hopes that it might inspire some of her students and fellow citizens.

“They actually did a web search for places in California that were commemorating the march, and the Sierra College website popped up, because our marketing department put up our announcement,” she said. “They called me and we talked for three hours on the phone the first time, and I got them up here right away.”

More than happy to discuss the movement that became his life’s work, Hunt said an awareness of social injustices shaped his worldview from an early age.

As a white child raised on a farm in upstate New York, he said, he noticed the obvious isolation of black migrant farm workers and found it arbitrary. He believed the only difference between them and himself were possessions like shoes, money and opportunity, and society’s mistreatment of his childhood friends inspired a moral awakening.

As Hunt’s high school girlfriend from a more segregated area, Eleanor said their relationship introduced her to a world of neglect and contradictions she hadn’t seen before, and she never forgot it.

By the time they were 23 and in college, Tom and Eleanor were on one of approximately 2,000 buses headed for a civil rights march in Washington, D.C. Eleanor said crowds in the capital received incoming buses by waving signs, not of protest but welcome, and they set the tone for the march.

“It wasn’t just a protest. It was a very positive vibe of togetherness, community, support for each other. It was the feeling of the entire crowd altogether, and as we moved … to me, it was like a wave. It was like a tsunami,” she said. “The powerful, powerful feeling you got from being in that large group, and moving in that large group, was unbelievable.”

And then King, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, distilled that feeling into words that the Hunts, and the world, would remember forever.

“It was very, very moving,” Hunt said. “We can’t emphasize too much how effective that speech was. When we heard it, Eleanor commented to me, ‘We’re present at a historic event here,’ and it was true.”

On the bus home, he and Eleanor both decided they would finish law school and become civil rights lawyers. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed 11 months later, though it included no provisions for voter discrimination, and the couple found no shortage of work in the following decades. Hunt said the march itself, well-intentioned as it was, failed to put any women at the podium and kept its lead organizer in the shadows because he was gay.

Wednesday’s forum concluded with questions from the audience, inviting discussion of current legislation on voter ID laws, LGBT rights and gender equality, adoption challenges and the future of the civil rights movement.

As a statement, Hunt said, the march was intended more for the American people than for congressmen or the president, and urged voters to hold officials responsible for change – a message that hasn’t aged a day.

“It’s important to have new blood and new ideas any time, any cause,” he said. “People who are here today, I hope a few of them are inspired to do things that will be meaningful, but at the very least be a person in the community who speaks out about issues.”