After my sophomore year at Bucknell University in 1953, I left that lovely campus after being accepted into the U.S. Air Force cadet program. Four years later, as a first lieutenant crew navigator, I requested and received an "early out" from the Air Force to complete my college education under the GI Bill and returned to Bucknell in Lewisburg, Pa.
As a Baptist-founded university, Bucknell had a requirement that every student had to attend at least 15 nondenominational chapels on the campus, which meant I had to attend almost all of them. Today, 58 years later, there is only one of those many chapels that I vividly recall and will never forget.
It was in April 1958 and, as usual, I didn't know who would be speaking. He began his comments in a low voice I strained to hear, but he had a magnetism about him. The intensity of his rhetoric increased gradually, with a booming voice that seemed to rattle the rafters. I was awestruck and certainly not alone. I simply had to know who that man was and asked the person next to me. The answer: Martin Luther King Jr.
For my 50th class reunion in 2008, I revisited Bucknell for the first time. I went to the campus library and viewed the microfilms of the university newspaper. I soon found the story about King's speech that he called "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life." The article said "Dr. King concluded by saying that we must love the self to gain length but must not stop there. We should 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' to gain breadth. The fulfillment of a complete life is an upward reach to God achieved by loving 'The Lord thy God, with all thy heart, soul and mind.' Every life must have its sky."
I was reinvigorated when I left that campus library having revisited his profound words from 1958.
It is deeply distressing to me that racism still flourishes in America. Some of my fellow Americans are brazen and make no secret of their prejudices and animus for people of color, or different ethnicities and religions. Far too many conceal those prejudices and would deny them. But in the sanctity of the voting booth or in private places among like-minded people, they are free and unfettered.
For them, I feel pity and would respectfully urge that they first read the "Statement by Alabama Clergy," which prompted King, while in jail, to write in pencil on the edges of newspapers his response, "Letter From Birmingham Jail." How anyone of good conscience can read that historically profound letter and not empathize and be moved by the immensity of his written logic and truthful eloquence is beyond me.
For those of good conscience who haven't read it, I urge you to spend a few minutes to read it. You will be rewarded, enriched and pleased that you did.
Merrett Stierheim served as city manager of Clearwater from 1967-73 and as Pinellas County administrator from 1973-76 before moving to Miami-Dade County, where he served as county manager from 1976-86 and from 1998-2001, and superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools from 2001-04.