Speaking at Cleveland State Community College’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Thursday night, he shared his own experiences with the Civil Rights leader and stressed the importance of people sharing their stories to help future generations succeed.
“Every person has a story,” Hrabowski said. “Our stories define who we are.”
His story began in Birmingham, Ala. Both his parents were from rural Alabama towns, and he said they worked their way into careers in the city.
Given the choice between working in a field picking cotton or working in the home of a wealthy white family, his mother chose the latter. Racial segregation was still prevalent, and she was a book lover who lived in a place that did not have a library that welcomed “colored people.” Seeing how fascinated she was by a large collection of books in the home, her employer allowed her to borrow some to read.
She soon began taking books home to enjoy, which invited criticism from her friends who did not like to read. Hrabowski said his mother told him that they disliked reading simply because they were not given the opportunity to do well at it.
That later inspired her to become an English teacher. He said he grew up an only child with parents who stressed the importance of education because it would lead him closer to success.
Hrabowski is now the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. However, the journey from being a young black man in a segregated Southern city to where he would later be was not an easy path.
He described his 12-year-old self as a “mega-nerd” who loved to eat and do math problems. One day, his parents took him to church, bribing him with promises that he could at least sit there, munch on M&Ms and work through equations if he did not want to listen. He said he tuned out the speaker for a while, but then something the man at the front said caught his ear.
The man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was telling the church he believed children should march in a Civil Rights protest to show the world that the next generation wanted things to change.
“The world of tomorrow did not have to be the same as the world of today,” Hrabowski said.
Hrabowski wanted to march, but his parents did not want him to at first, for fear that he would be hurt or thrown in jail. After some thinking and praying, he said they eventually told him he could go because they saw how passionate he was about wanting an end to segregation.
He said his goal was freedom, the freedom to do things like go to a movie or sit on a bus, the freedom for everyone to live like everyone else. He was afraid, but he wanted to try.
“Sometimes, people who do courageous things aren’t really courageous,” he said. “They just see something they want.”
He described the march as a loud, hectic experience. A cacophony of voices battled for volume. First, he said it was white police officers heckling the young people to try to provoke them to violence. Next, it was the voices of those marching singing hymns about freedom to drown out that noise.
Ultimately, many who participated in the march ended up in jail. Hrabowski spent five days in jail with men and boys as young as 8 years old. He said he still remembered what King said to those gathered in the cell with him.
He said King didn’t consider being arrested a failure, because it meant attention had been drawn to the issue at hand, and things might change.
“What you did this day will have an impact on children who are not even born yet,” King told the children sitting in the large jail cell with him.
While Hrabowski said America is “in a much better state” than it was then, he still said there are lessons to be learned from the Civil Rights Movement.
The biggest one, he said, was that people in bad situations do have the power to work toward bettering themselves and those around them.
“People have the power to change their circumstances,” Hrabowski said.
As a university president who remembered how things were for him growing up, he said the biggest asset for creating change was education.
Back when he was a young boy, he said he and his classmates used old textbooks that had been discarded by white schools. Hrabowski said he felt having second-rate educational resources might have made him feel like he was second-rate. However, a teacher told him, though the books were second-rate, he was not. He was “a child of God,” which made him valuable.
He said there are still young people today who need people to tell them they are worth more than they think, and make sure they have the educational resources they need to succeed.
Hrabowski said his mother’s stories taught him knowing how to read well and work hard meant opportunity.
There was once a student at the university who told Hrabowski his story as he was about to graduate. Both of his parents had been drug addicts, and his mother abandoned him. However, this boy had a teacher who encouraged him to keep faith and work hard, and he did. The young man who had grown up surrounded by crack houses later studied in Russia, became a Fulbright Scholar and went to work for the U.S. State Department.
Hrabowski stressed that humble beginnings can lead to great things if one is determined to see change in his or her life. The key is encouraging people to work toward that change.
“Even in poverty, there is brilliance,” he said. “All things are possible when you learn to read and to dream.”