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All-Kiski Valley residents recall speech, taking part in March on Washington

| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, 12:26 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
With a photo of the famous 'I Have A Dream' moment on his desk, Asa Roberts, 95, pastor of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in New Kensington, talks about being on the podium with Martin Luther King in 1963 in Washington, D.C. during an interview on Thursday, August 8, 2013.

The Rev. Asa Roberts of Lower Burrell recalls leaning on the stage as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Even as King spoke his famous words for the first time 50 years ago Wednesday, Roberts, now 95, knew the speech would be an inspiration to those seeking equality for all races.

“I knew it was going to be great because he was a good author. He was a good speaker and he knew how to get the attention of people,” Roberts said. “I didn't know it would be spread as widely as it has been.”

Roberts and King were childhood friends, growing up together in a small town in Georgia. They kept in close contact over the years.

Roberts, pastor of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in New Kensington, helped organize a bus trip 50 years ago for about 60 people to Washington from his church's former location on Third Avenue in the city.

“He was a very good friend of mine,” he said of King. “That's how I made it up front, because I had been talking with him and I knew he was coming.”

King's speech, made before about 250,000 gathered on the two-mile mall between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, has become a central part of the fight to end legal discrimination against blacks.

Though they weren't in the crowd that day, several Alle-Kiski Valley residents said the speech made an impact on their lives. It was evident that King's words resonated throughout their communities, as change slowly took place.

“The whole thing overall meant a lot of energy and inspiration for local people,” said Dr. Dan Fine, 89, of New Kensington. He and his wife, Anita, were civil rights advocates. “Of course it was a tremendously inspiring visual thing, both the huge support by the attendance there and Martin Luther King's address — the content and delivery were incredible.”

Aarie Holt-Scruggs, 75, of Brackenridge, chairman of the committee that organizes the Valley's annual King memorial service, said she has great respect for King.

“I've thought about his words a lot,” she said. “It makes you feel very humble.”

All three said that life was much different for blacks half a century ago.

They recalled public swimming pools where blacks weren't allowed, streets on which blacks and whites lived on opposite ends and rarely interacted and the food counter at the local five-and-dime that would not serve them.

“There were some good whites who helped with a lot of things as far as equality,” Holt-Scruggs said. “but there were also people who didn't want to associate with blacks.

“Things weren't as good as they could have been.”

Anita Fine was involved in efforts to desegregate local pools and fought for fair housing.

“There's no doubt about it, there was a factor of segregation in New Kensington-Arnold,” Dan Fine said.

Roberts said blacks had more freedom in the northern states but still encountered problems.

“We didn't have freedom like we have it now; even up north you didn't have it, but at least you could go to the same restaurant and what not,” he said. “I'm from Georgia and they had a fountain down there — one for white and one for colored.”

Blacks were expected to step into the street to walk if the sidewalk was blocked by a group of whites.

“Now everything is open and that means a lot,” Roberts said.

He said that's what comes to mind each time he hears King's speech, along with fond memories of his friend.

“It was a dream come true (for King) because he really fought hard for the civil rights and he wanted to be peaceful,” Roberts said. “His theme was ‘I Have a Dream,' and it wasn't only for him, but it hit a lot of other people who were having problems.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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