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How Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Influenced Rick Wright G’93 and Inspired His Broadcasting Career (Podcast)
Roosevelt “Rick” Wright G’93 had a front-row seat as the Civil Rights Movement took off across the American South in the late 1950s and early 1960s, participating in the sit-ins and demonstrations while coming face-to-face with police dogs and fire hoses in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
At the heart of the movement were the non-violent, civil disobedience teachings of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who inspired Black citizens around the country to speak out and stand up for their constitutional rights.
Wright had the pleasure of meeting and eating with Dr. King several times as a teenager, as his Sunday school teacher was King’s sister-in-law, Edith Scott Bagley. Those Sunday evening suppers saw Wright consume much more than fried chicken, ham, collard greens, candied yams, potato salad and snap beans: He hung on King’s every word as the eloquent reverend imparted life lessons on the impressionable Wright.
Words of wisdom that, more than 55 years after King’s death, still resonate loud and clear with Wright.
“The most important thing Dr. King impressed on me was the need for education. He would say, ‘Roosevelt, one of the problems here in America is that we as African Americans were brought to this country as slaves to work the fields and the agriculture of the South. Technically our families built this country for free as slaves,’” Wright says.
“Dr. King said that America has got to wake it up from this idea of white superiority. They are immediately taught at birth that African Americans were inferior, dumb and stupid, and that their worst was better than your very best. How do we get past this? Education and schooling. Get smart. And he preached how to handle incredible challenges of conflict through non-violent protest. While we were sitting at those lunch counters, I remember white kids coming in calling us every name in the world. They threw hot water on us, hot sauce in our faces and everything. And we just sat there and took it.”
Dr. King’s message and mission will be honored at the University’s 39th Annual MLK Celebration on Sunday, Jan. 21, the largest event of its kind held on a college campus.
In this “’Cuse Conversation,” Wright recalls the powerful impact Dr. King made on him, shares how Dr. King utilized the radio to preach his non-violent message and how Dr. King’s oratorical prowess inspired his successful career as both a radio broadcaster and television, radio and film professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Wright, who became the first Black communications professor at Newhouse, was the first faculty advisor for the student-run radio station WJPZ and served as faculty manager for WAER. He was an invaluable resource for the thousands of students who took one of his classes, and is the definition of “Major Market.”
01What are your lasting memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Dr. King was an incredible and inspirational man. I’ll never forget the first time that I shook hands with him—I still feel that handshake to this day. The softness and the smoothness of Dr. King’s hands, and the warm expression he gave me, that feeling has never left me. He was unlike anyone else I’d ever met. Later on, as we were eating, I pulled out my NAACP card. We had a big student chapter at Elizabeth City State University, and I gave Dr. King my NAACP card, and he signed it. I still have that as a cherished possession.
Dr. King taught that the only way change was going to happen was through non-violence. If we turned to violence, the opposition had guns and would have shot us dead. Dr. King’s teachings were so powerful for my generation of young African Americans. Everybody was on board with the non-violent movement, which culminated with the March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech. I’ll never forget that day. Having met the man in person and shared dinners with him, that speech still gives me the chills. That’s probably the greatest speech ever given, and I still can’t believe how lucky I was to have met with and learned from Dr. King.
02What did Dr. King teach you about radio?
Dr. King had such a powerful voice. He knew I was crazy about radio, and he would say how radio was our savior with regards to getting the word out on meetings and what we’re going to do for the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also a motivational tool.
Back in Atlanta, Georgia, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices were on the first floor, and the WERD radio studios were up on the second floor. Dr. King kept a broom next to his desk, and every time he felt moved to make a speech, he would take that broom and bang on the ceiling. The station only had two microphones, so they would take the mic off the stand and lower it out the window to Dr. King, and he would go live on the air and give a sermon talking about what was happening with the Civil Rights Movement.
Radio was such a powerful form of communication, and I never forgot how well Dr. King used radio to communicate with the people. He had a fantastic voice that played very well on radio.
03How did Dr. King’s skills as an orator inspire your broadcasting career?
When I came to Syracuse University in 1975, I taught a course called Television and Radio Announcing and Performance, which I went on to teach for close to 38 years. I think today of the hundreds of thousands of students who took that course who are now major market broadcasters. A lot of what I was teaching focused on using inflection, pronunciation and enunciation techniques, and timing to present your thoughts and ideas. That all comes from Dr. King.
He taught me that at the dinner table in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and I took those lessons and taught my students those same lessons. Dr. King was one of the greatest at his delivery techniques and how to present your broadcast copy. I always told my students, especially those interested in radio, that you’re creating the theater of the mind when you present something. Dr. King was the best at using his voice to deliver a message. He taught me everything I knew about radio and getting your message across.
04Where were you when you learned Dr. King had been assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee?
I had served our country overseas in Europe with the 32nd Air Defense Command, working for the Armed Forces Radio in Europe. I returned home on Dec. 27, 1967, and started teaching at Elizabeth City State University. When I got done teaching on April 4, 1968, I turned on the radio and heard the news that Dr. King had been shot and killed. I just sat in my car in front of my house, stunned. Tears were flowing. I cried “Oh my god, how could this happen?”
It was the lowest moment I ever experienced. A great man and a great leader, someone who made time to get to know me, who served as my personal role model, someone who had so much to teach the world, killed by an assassin. All Dr. King wanted to do was help people, and he lost his life for his beliefs. I mourned his death and still feel that tremendous loss.
Note: This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.