MLK Convocation speaker promotes dreams, values, and education

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, recounted his experiences as a child civil rights marcher in Birmingham, Ala.
(Photos by Steve Kurtz)
Gina Castaneda, right, receives the Ton Hill Memorial Award from Chancellor Blumenthal, and Tony Hill's widow, Melanie Stern, left, and daughter, Tara Kemp.

Peering into the darkened Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Freeman A. Hrabowski, III asked that the house lights be brought up a bit so he could see the audience's faces. "As an old math teacher I like to see who is falling asleep," he said.

More than 300 pairs of eyes stayed wide open for Hrabowski's rollicking 25-minute keynote address at the 30th annual UCSC Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation February 6. Hrabowski, longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, set the stage for his talk, "The Role of Youth in the Civil Rights Movement: Reflections on Birmingham," with a reading based on "dreams and values."

(The convocation was recorded and can be streamed from radio station KUSP's website.)

"Dreams and values are written on your brow," Hrabowski said, then recounted where his began. They came from a teacher in his segregated schoolroom who told him, "'You are a child of God, you don't have to be a victim.'

"It was the first time I realized life today might be different from tomorrow. Let's hear it for that teacher," he said in the first of many calls for audience participation.

In May 1963, the self-described chubby 12-year-old math nerd wanted to take part in Rev. King's Children's Crusade march after hearing the civil rights leader speak at his church. "'Absolutely not,"' his parents told him, but later relented after a sleepless night spent in prayer.

"Give it up for my parents."  

Tony Hill Memorial Award

Later in the evening, the sixth annual Tony Hill Memorial Award was presented to Gina Castaneda, a deputy Santa Cruz County probation officer. Named for the community activist who died in 2007 at age 62, the award recognizes individuals whose lives and actions exemplify Hill’s work and legacy.

Castaneda described her rough upbringing on the streets of Watsonville. Today, she works with youth in the justice system and on soccer fields as founder and coach of the Aztecas soccer team where teammates from rival gangs play side by side.

"I challenge you to never forget the forgotten youth," she said.

Children's Crusade

In Birmingham, Hrabowski joined the march with hundreds of other children. Spat upon by "Bull" Conner, the Birmingham commissioner of public safety, he was jailed for five days with other children as young as eight.

"What you do this day will have an impact on children not even born yet," Hrabowski remembers Dr. King telling the jailed children and their parents.

The school superintendent was forced to suspend young Hrabowski and other students who marched and were arrested. "He had no choice," Hrabowski said. But he had a choice in how it would happen.

The superintendent had an exit strategy. He organized something akin to an awards ceremony and asked each child who was to be suspended to step forward. "'These are you leaders, let them know how they are,"' Hrabowski remembers the superintendent saying.

"Let's hear it for the superintendent."

The experience in Birmingham led Hrabowski to a career as an educator. "Think about the power of education to make better lives," he said.

As for personal conduct: "Watch your thoughts because they become your words. Watch your words, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your destiny."

"Dreams and values."