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Dr. King spoke truth at Villanova field house nearly 57 years ago | Opinion

The student body president who introduced him recalls his extraordinary command of language and urges us all to speak clearly.

Tom Furst, student body president, (at left) and the Rev. John A. Klekotka, the president of Villanova University, (at right) welcome Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Villanova on Jan. 20, 1965.
Tom Furst, student body president, (at left) and the Rev. John A. Klekotka, the president of Villanova University, (at right) welcome Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Villanova on Jan. 20, 1965.Read moreJules Schick

On Jan. 20, 1965, in my senior year at Villanova University, it was my honor as student body president to introduce Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to several thousand people packed in the field house. Dr. King spoke to the community for around 45 minutes with clarity and resolve. This was two years after he had delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, of which Villanova is now a steward.

After I introduced him, I took my seat on stage behind Dr. King. Looking at his back, I could see the audience of around 3,500 people gathered to listen in the same building where Villanova played basketball. I heard that some 1,500 more people had arrived who couldn’t get seats; the university set up speakers outside so that they could hear him.

Dr. King was clear and direct. He had humility and a quiet strength. Dr. King knew how to modulate his voice. He knew how to bring the crowd along and take us up to his key points. He knew how to put a rhythm in it. His strength was in his delivery.

I knew from watching television and reading the papers that many people did not favor the laws and changes that were coming in the civil rights movement. What Dr. King showed me that day, though, is that speaking up matters. And in our current moment, we need more people, especially those who don’t think that they have something important to say, to be vocal. Our voices make a difference.

In my career in Silicon Valley, I have spoken to people who are in Congress. I have watched national leaders who have positions of power make decisions of consequence. I read columnists who influence public opinion. The vast majority of people live lives in which these tools and channels are not open to them.

But all of us, as we move through our days and our lives, come in contact with many people: our friends, our coworkers, the people we go to church with, and the people we socialize with. Those are the people who will listen to us. Those are the people who we listen to.

One action all of us can take is to speak up. When we let only a few voices dominate the conversation, false narratives can fester. Tens of millions of Americans believe that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, even though there’s no significant evidence of voter fraud. Medical misinformation is one of the biggest threats that our country faces because not enough people are speaking the truth about COVID-19, and not enough people are listening.

All of us can speak the truth — and do so clearly, respectfully, and passionately.

Nearly 57 years ago, Dr. King spoke the truth at the Villanova field house. I had heard him before, of course we all had, but in his presence, I was just listening. His message came across so clearly. I sat on stage, looking in the faces of a couple of thousand people who were riveted by what he was saying and how he said it.

We all aren’t capable of Dr. King’s command of language, which was extraordinary. But we all have the ability to speak clearly. We all have the ability — even those who are the most timid, who have the least command of vocabulary — to convey how we feel.

In our current political moment, too few voices are dominating the conversation. We need to push back. We need more people who might otherwise be silent in the middle of a thoughtful conversation to speak up.

If those people can change the minds of even one or two others in the course of that day, that would make a difference. In a country of over 300 million people, true change happens in conversation.

Tom Furst, retired chief financial officer of SRI International, was the student body president of Villanova University in 1965.