Scholar who experienced civil rights movement firsthand to keynote MLK luncheon

USI Shield Staff

James Anderson remembers the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“It was spring break in Illinois and I was getting ready to take a trip to Tennessee State University with some of my friends,” he said.

A lot of his friends had never been to a historic black college. Anderson, on the other hand, attended Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. before he began his graduate studies in Illinois.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we go to Tennessee State for spring break – it was the closest one – so you can get that experience?’” Anderson said.

But as they were about to hit the road, he noticed King’s face appear on the TV screen.

“I knew it was strange and that something wasn’t right,” he said. “The sound on the TV was actually off, but when I turned up the volume we learned that Martin Luther King had been shot.”

Anderson, a history professor and head of the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign, will deliver this year’s keynote speech during USI’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Luncheon.

Tickets for the event, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday in Carter Hall, are on sale at the Multicultural Center or at USI Dining Services.

As of Wednesday morning there were still about 100 of the 392 tickets left, according to the Multicultural Center.

The event also includes entertainment by university and community groups.

Anderson’s research focuses on the history of education, specifically the history of African American education in the south and the history of desegregation. He has also served as an expert witness in a slew of desegregation and affirmative action cases.

His book, “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935” won an outstanding book award from the American Educational Research Association.

A history buff, Anderson said he remembers a lot of things, but the two events that stick with him the most are John F. Kennedy and King’s assassinations.

“Those two events really shook up my world,” he said. “We knew there was a danger and we knew people had been assassinated before, but we never imagined that would happen.”

He said King delivered a speech in his hometown in Alabama a couple of weeks before he was assassinated.

“I’m very familiar with King,” Anderson said. “He’s a part of my memory and a part of my legacy.”

Anderson, who grew up in the south, said he was part of the civil rights movement and actually took part in demonstrations.

Now a Midwestern, he has taught at the University of Illinois for nearly 40 years. He said he drives through Evansville on his way home to Alabama, but he doesn’t know that he’s actually been on USI’s campus.

“It’s a campus that’s kind of historic to me,” Anderson said about USI. “When I was in college – way back during my undergrad years – we had a basketball player by the name of James Toombs, and (ISUE) had a basketball player with a pretty similar name – his name was James Coombs or something. My classmates and I would go back and forth and see who was the highest scorer, so we followed that team pretty closely, actually.”

Anderson said he’s not given a speech like this before, but he’s excited to.

“I think what I really want to focus on is, not only the legacy of MLK, but to really zero in on the changes we’ve made, but also the issues we’re still dealing with,” he said.

He plans to talk about issues such as economic inequality and voter rights.

“It was something that we actually thought had been secured and that battle was over,” Anderson said about voter disenfranchisement. “But we find ourselves in that position again.”

He said Provost Ronald Rochon reached out to him about speaking during the luncheon.

“He asked,” Anderson said. “I couldn’t say no.”

“I’m looking forward to coming to see USI and see the campus,” he said. “I’m hoping to meet with students, too. Teaching for me is a labor of love. I love for students to share their experiences with me and I love to share my experiences with them.”