As we reflect today on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what he meant to our country, I think about another distinguished African-American leader: my late friend Dr. Elson Floyd, the former Washington State University president who lost his battle with cancer in June 2015.
The “Big Coug” and I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about his childhood, but there were enough anecdotes for me to gather how the segregated South he grew up in as a North Carolina native was very different from our state’s Adams County, where I was brought up.
The Civil Rights Act (and the Voting Rights Act) were passed by Congress, thanks to Republicans, when Elson was still a young boy. Still, changes in culture often lag changes in the law. Although Elson was less than a year older than me, he spoke of having to stay away from certain places – whether the law said so or because he knew better than to be around those places. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.
Elson was raised with a strong sense of family, and while he was athletically gifted as a young man, he was wise enough to put academics ahead of athletics. I respected those qualities and much more about him. But although he worked hard for his academic achievements, education alone does not bring opportunity. To me, it’s because of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that great leaders like Dr. Elson Floyd were and are able to emerge – and to shine brightly, as my dear friend did. That’s worth commemorating today.