Dr. King’s Legacy Series: An interview with the Chancellor

     The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is approaching on April 4, 2018. Dr. King died in 1968 at the age of 39 in Memphis, TN. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Dr. King was assassinated and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed. It was a turbulent time in America where leaders were assassinated, war was prevalent and America was changing its history. Dr. King greatly influenced American Society, became a leader of the civil rights movement and used his platform to impact the world in the 1950s and 1960s.

     During this time, University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Chancellor Dennis Shields was just becoming aware of the world. Currently, at the age of 62, Chancellor Shields has experienced and lived through what most incoming students on campus learn as history.

Could you give me some background information on your life?

     “The civil rights movement, which took place in the ‘60s, was the beginning of time that I was aware of the world. I spent my first five years of life in a Catholic orphanage, and then I left because that [5 years old]was the age limit. I was in a foster home, [and] I grew up mostly around Des Moines, IA. I went to live with a black doctor who practiced medicine in rural Iowa. They were very in tune with what was going on, and I can remember, when I was living with them, John Kennedy was killed. I remember schools closing and being let out early for those events. I can remember very vividly because they were very engaged in the March on Washington, watching Martin Luther King [Jr.’s] speech in real time.”

Could you give an estimate about when you first learned or heard about Dr. King?

     “It would have been there when I went to live with the doctor and his wife, so seven or eight years old.  He [Dr. King]  was very much a part of their lives, right? So they read every weekend. I was a reader, I was, so the magazine would come, I would read it every day. I was fascinated, because up to that point, I had not been exposed to it, and what was going on in the civil rights movement was front and center for them and watching the news every night.”

What do you believe is Dr. King’s impact on activism?

     “If you think about even today, the pattern of nonviolent forceful intellectual responses to hatred and racism he probably set the standard and formed the frame of that. He brought to it [in reference to “Letter From Birmingham Jail] this ability to get people to buy into the notion that you don’t bring baseball bats, but you come and do things you have every right to do and show others the hate that comes back. He created a turning point with tactics and approaches very powerful and still influences the way people protest. If you look at the young people that are protesting the shooting in Florida, you can see some of what they do relates all the way back to what Dr. King was doing.”

What do you believe is left out of the conversation when people talk about Dr. King’s Legacy or Dr. King as a person that is important or vital to his narrative?

     “I think that the thing that’s missing is an understanding of the history that drove it and the end. The impact he had on people’s lives. I don’t think everybody should be an expert on African-American history, but you could grow up in this society for the most part and never know anything about any of those people. Part of the legacy that I think about Martin Luther King [Jr.] wanted to do is inspire people to be better informed about our history.”

How can students and faculty help build on the efforts of Dr. King and many other advocates?

     “In my view, it is how you interact with people every day. Some people may get the opportunity to cause huge change. More than anything in the university setting, everyone should be willing to explore and learn about things they don’t know anything about. For me, I think my life is sort of interesting in that most of the circumstance I’ve been in, I’ve been one of very few African-Americans. I am acutely aware of what it’s like to be the other in almost every environment that I’m in, and it’s a good thing because I’m still pretty positive. I think most people want to do the right thing. We have to continue to try to be better. We have to try to be able to look at people who are different from us and empathize with them and try to understand their journey in life. I think that’s the message of what Martin Luther King [Jr.’s] life was about.”

If you could say or ask anything to Dr. King, what would it be?

     “I think it would start by saying thank you. The courage that he displayed, the huge change that he caused. You just start by being grateful for that and grateful for the inspiration it provides moving forward. I don’t think I would ask him one thing if I had the opportunity, I’d want to have a conversation with him, understand more and what drove him.”