Dr. James A. Anderson was 13 years old when he stood just feet away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and stood captivated as the Civil Rights leader delivered a speech to more than 250,000 people who were all fighting for equality.
Anderson, who is now the chancellor at Fayetteville State University, spoke before those gathered at the 18th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Business Reception Monday.
“Imagine seeing this through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy,” Anderson said. “We didn’t know much about the politics behind the March on Washington.”
Raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Anderson shared his story about growing up on the streets, not having a mother or father responsible for his care. In fact, the now head of the university says he doesn’t even know his real name. Admittedly, Anderson was street smart, and along with his friends knew an event like the March drew a crowd and where there was a crowd there was free food and clothing.
“I had never in all of my life seen a collage of diversity like there was that day,” Anderson recalled. “And no time since then has there been such an event.”
After working his way through the crowd, Anderson said he stood and listened to the many speeches, but none made an impression on him like that of King’s.
“He used such vivid and colorful words that even a 13-year-old boy knew what he was saying,” Anderson said. “I can still remember that moment when he reached out his hands and it was like I could feel him cupping my face. For a moment, it was like it was just the two of us and it was in that moment that I decided to make a change.”
Anderson wasn’t only responsible for himself at the time, he had a younger sister to take care of, but says he never stole anything unless it was food for him and his sister. He wasn’t refraining from bad behavior, and the words King spoke in August 1963 forever changed his life.
In 1970, Anderson graduated from Villanova University and later earned a doctorate from Cornell University. Early in his career, Anderson chaired the Department of Psychology at Xavier University in New Orleans before joining the Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a professor of psychology.
In 1992, he began an 11-year tenure as vice provost for Undergraduate Affairs at North Carolina State University and in 2003, he was recruited to Texas A&M University as vice president and associate provost for Institutional Assessment and Diversity. He held that post until joining the University at Albany in 2005 and became the chancellor at Fayetteville State in 2008.
On the advice of King and other leaders of the Civil Rights, Anderson says he has lived his life encouraging diversity, but not letting those difference hinder building relationships.
“If we are silent, we can not answer the riveting questions of today,” Anderson said. “You can only solve problem if you work together, but you can’t work together if you only see differences.”
Dr. Ted Thomas, member of the Multi-Cultural Business Committee, also shared his memories of King’s speech. A 14-year-old boy at the time, Thomas says he still remembers the day a “shot rang out that forever changed history.”
“Here we are, 50 years later, still remembering the man who gave his life for the civil rights of others,” Thomas said. “Dr. King worked for 13 years to change this country. Remember the sacrifices he made so that we can be free.”
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