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King’s Grinnell speech still resonates with Iowan

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013 11:58 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — Roger Maxwell pumps his fist as he listens to a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech at Grinnell College.

King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech may be taught in schools across the country, but King’s talk to a crowd in Grinnell, “Remaining Awake During a Revolution,” was better, Maxwell insists.

“’I Have A Dream’ is a good speech, but this one ... oh, boy,” Maxwell said.

On Monday Americans will pause to honor the civil rights leader on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The national holiday coincides with the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, being ceremonially inaugurated for his second term.

Maxwell, a former educator, said he marvels at the social progress made since the 1960s, but noted that much work remains. It’s one reason why the speech at Grinnell, more than 45 years later, still resonates.

Delivered without notes on Oct. 29 to a crowd packed into Darby Gymnasium, King’s words had an edge and urgency that Maxwell, now 84, relishes.

His defiant voice booming from a cassette player in Maxwell’s home, King proclaims pride in his maladjustment to the world’s injustices.

Speaking just six months before his assassination, King decries segregation, discrimination, religious bigotry, economic unfairness, militarism and violence.

“Maybe our world is in dire need of a new organization,” King suggests. “The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.”

Maxwell, smiling, calls himself a charter member of the group.

Maxwell and his wife, Arenda “Bunny” Maxwell, who both heard the address live, can identify with King’s sentiment.

The couple were denied teaching jobs and allowed to swim in pools only on Sunday mornings. Roger Maxwell was rejected by a barber because customers couldn’t stomach the sight of a black man getting his hair cut.

When the pair moved to their current home in Windsor Heights about 15 years ago, they say a neighbor refused to talk to them for two years.

“I’ve seen hate,” Roger Maxwell said.

Despite the discrimination, Roger Maxwell said he needs only to look to his children for proof of progress. The couple’s son is an associate principal at Valley High School in West Des Moines. Their daughter served as press secretary for former Gov. Chet Culver.

Maxwell and his wife proudly display several pictures of themselves with Obama, which they view as a symbol of national progress. They talk fondly of volunteering for the president’s campaign at the very beginning, when few had heard of the junior senator from Illinois. Obama, known for his public speaking skills, has said King inspired his approach.

Bunny Maxwell, a retired English teacher, also has long admired King’s style. She said she would play the tape of the speech at Grinnell for her students as a shining example of oratory.

“I’d take this tape in for students to listen to, so they could hear how someone enunciates, how they phrase their sentences, and the content of the speech,” she said. “The students were just spellbound.”

Roger Maxwell, who heard King speak twice, used similar words to describe his awe when he first witnessed the relatively unknown preacher speak at the University of Iowa Memorial Union on Nov. 11, 1959.

“I thought he was just another itinerant black preacher,” Roger Maxwell said. “Oh my gracious ... thought process, use of language, diction, ideas. Never heard anyone speak like that.”

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