My Personal Connection to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 19, 2015 | Civic Engagement, Dialogue, Inspire

My beloved grandparents, Evelyn and Dr. Harry E. Groves, had the distinct privilege of having lunch with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a few months before the earth-shattering assassination.

[from left: Atty. John Bustamante (Board Chair), Evelyn Groves (my grandma!), Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Mrs. Bustamante, Dr. Harry E. Groves (Central State President – aka Grandad)]

It all started at Central State University, a university founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in an attempt to build Union Seminary outside of Colombus, Ohio in 1844. It was originally called the Ohio African University. The forerunner of the school became the village of Wilberforce is 1856 as a creation of the Cincinatti Conference of the (white) Methodist Episcopal church. Before the Civil war, slave owners in Kentucky often sent favored bastard sons or daughters, conceived on their black slaves, to Ohio African University. The two schools operated together for many years, with only a footbridge separating the black and white campuses. A series of disputes led to the gradual separation of the campuses between 1947 and 1965 and the renaming of the Ohio African University to Central State University.

In 1965 my late grandfather, Dr. Harry E. Groves, accepted the Presidency of Central State University. By 1965, my grandfather was an accomplished attorney, experienced university and law school dean, author, decorated military officer and war veteran. He had already worked with Thurgood Marshall and the  NAACP helping increase opportunities for blacks in the United States. My grandfather felt equal to most any task, so he accepted the Presidency despite the serious financial trouble and poor administration the University was facing. Correcting all of that was nothing to the notoriety he would later receive for reintegrating the former sister schools. Dr. Groves literally walked across the bridge that divided the white and black campuses to reconcile with Wilberforce and invite white students to attend the Ohio African University campus.

My grandfather received death threats from anti-white activists and the the black power movement on campus blocked him in his office for several days when he refused to deny white students admission to the university. The National Guard was called in to break up the riots. My grandfather closed the school for the safety of the students, much to the chagrin of the NAACP. The story made national headlines and the school reopened peacefully some time later. Dr. Ruth A. Hargrave was killed by an angry student shortly after the school reopened. The shooter was aiming for my grandfather.

It was my grandfather’s distinguished educational, social justice, and professional record that prompted Dr. King to seek him out when he was passing through Ohio. They shared a meal and a conversation about the current state and the future of civil rights in our nation. Dr. Groves kept the photograph and the memory among his most prized possessions. My grandfather crossed paths with a great many leaders in his lifetime, but Dr. King ranked among the most memorable.

My older brother calls our grandfather a reluctant leader. He would not accept gifts during any of his university president and dean tenures. He wasn’t trying to make a statement. He was simply using his privileged position to do what was right. He avoided the press and carried on his work as quietly as possible. By 1966, the university was 15% white with 50% enrollment from out-of-state.  My grandfather’s willingness to put his own life on the line in defense of civil rights inspires me to this day.

My grandfather went on to help write the national constitution of Singapore, build and reorganize law schools, serve on the International Olympic Committee, and author laws to protect senior citizens’ rights. I am proud of my connection to civil rights, social justice and human equity. Rest in peace, Dr. King. Your legacy lives on in my family and I vow to keep working to create the dream you once envisioned.