Honoring the Dream of Dr. King
Adapted from the article "Retired Chemist Heard King's 'Dream' and Lives It," by John Liberty, Kalamazoo Gazette;
Retired chemist and University of Illinois chemistry graduate Harvey Myers has many of the memories frequently held in life: marriage, family, a long and successful career, in his case at the UpJohn Company. But in addition to these, he has some special and less common ones—the memories of his own role in the Civil Rights movement and of meeting the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1960s, Harvey Myers was a high school student living in Tampa, Fla., during the height of the Civil Rights era. His local theater insisted that it would not admit black patrons, and refused to change its policy. "We decided enough was enough," said Myers many years later in an interview with the Kalamazoo, Michigan, Gazette. Joining with other residents of the area and members of the NAACP, Myers stood outside the theater, demanding that the policies change.
Three days later, they did.
By this time, Myers was already familiar with the Civil Rights movement. He had, after all, been present at one of the most momentous days. On August 28, 1963, he sat close to the Lincoln Memorial and listened to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his groundbreaking "I Have a Dream" speech. He didn't realize, he told the Gazette, the historic nature of the speech at the time.
Years later, Myers followed in King's footsteps, attending Morehouse College in Atlanta and joining the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. As a student at Morehouse, he had the opportunity to see King again, this time by attending a sermon delivered by the famous pastor. He recounted later that he didn't remember much of the sermon, but he shook King's hand when it was over. Only a few short years after the meeting, Myers heard the news that King had been assassinated.
"It was a very terrible time on our campus," Myers recalled. "We suspended classes, and we came together in the auditorium and talked about what we would do in honor of our most illustrious graduate."
As the years passed, Myers lived up to the goal of honoring King, fulfilling the words of "I Have a Dream." After Morehouse, he joined the graduate program in chemistry at the University of Illinois. He worked with John Katzenellenbogen, who said, "Harvey was a student who combined commitment, diligence, and persistence in the laboratory with a kind demeanor and a sense of humanity. He did great work and was uniformly liked and respected."
After obtaining his Ph.D. degree, Myers worked with Dr. Stanley Smith to learn computer-assisted instruction. He then took a job at the UpJohn Company at a time when UpJohn only employed six blacks with doctoral degrees. Not deterred by the situation, Myers undertook the task of traveling to historically black colleges, seeking to encourage the students there to work at UpJohn.
In recent years, Myers says that though the industry has gotten away from this manner of recruitment, he recalls that during his time at UpJohn he worked in a hospitable environment. He states that while "I know it (racism) was around me … I don't remember any incidents that angered me or set me off. I did not work in a hostile environment."
A recent retiree, Myers still works to honor the dream, even 40 years later. An active volunteer with Community Advocates for Parents and Students (CAPS), a local Kalamazoo organization that tutors students ranging from kindergarten to high school, he also remains a member of his local chapter of the NAACP.
"Stay in school," he tells the kids he works with. "Get as much education as you can. No one can take that away from you."
Interview With Harvey Myers
What prompted you to choose the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois as your graduate school?
How would you describe your experience at the Department of Chemistry?
Are there any memories that stand out to you from your time here?
Department of Chemistry
505 South Mathews Avenue, Urbana, Illinois 61801