An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Part of Something Bigger

*published in the Columbia County News-Times (January 21, 2015)

The Rev. Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth, speaking on May 3, 1963,  tell a news conference, that massive racial demonstra­tions will continue in Birmingham, Ala.   File photo by Associated Press
File photo by Associated Press

We were living in Vicenza, Italy, when I participated in a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The event was held at the American school on the military base, and part of the celebration involved students from the two sixth-grade classes reciting portions of Dr. King’s historic I Have a Dream speech.

All the students were terribly excited. Not only would we be part of an important event, but the American television station would be filming the ceremony and then broadcasting it on the evening news. Teachers began assigning lines, and every student raised his hand hoping to get a part. One by one lines were assigned, one by one hands went down as one student and then another was selected, and there I was, still sitting there with my hand raised.

Finally, much to my surprise, my name was called and I discovered I would be delivering the very last line of the speech, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

“Can you do this?” my teacher asked me quietly on the day of the ceremony. “These are important words; when you say them, you are sending them into tomorrow.”

I didn’t really understand what he was telling me, but I thought he meant that I should speak the words loudly.

That night we gathered around the television to watch the evening news, and at the end of the program the story faded out with the camera focusing on me reciting those 14 words.

Thirty years later, my husband and I took our three sons to visit the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, and there, standing next to the eternal flame across from his tomb, I told this story to my family.

They had never heard it before.

“Why were you picked to recite the very last line?” asked my son. “I mean, that’s one of the most memorable lines from the speech.”

Believe me, I have often wondered the same thing; after all, wouldn’t it have been more fitting to have had one of the black students recite the line – someone like Chris, who was tall and had a booming voice? Maybe I was picked because my teacher sensed my desperation, or he felt sorry for me (I was a mousy, timid thing), or maybe, in his wisdom, he knew that those words transcended race, gender, religion, and even time; that those words would always be hurled to the future as we strive to live them today; that the speech was bigger, truer, and more far reaching than any person who delivered it.

Of course, I didn’t understand the scope of his speech as I delivered those lines with all the passion of a timid, sixth-grader; in fact, it wasn’t until I was exploring the museum with our boys, standing in the pulpit where Dr. King used to preach, seeing his Nobel Peace Prize, and walking across the bridge alongside the life-sized statues depicting the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., that the memory even surfaced.

But I’m glad it did.

In my own small way I had been able to participate in something bigger, truer, and more far reaching than I could have possibly understood at the time, and standing with my family next to that eternal flame across from Dr. King’s tomb, we talked about how we are all part of something bigger, truer, and more far reaching.

And it isn’t until we recognize our role and embrace this fundamental truth that we can be truly “free at last.”

Maria Novajosky is a freelance writer and works for Catholic Stewardship Consultants. She can be reached at

1 comment:

Cathy Keller said...

What a wonderful experience you had and I'm so glad you shared it. His words are, indeed, immortal and resonate in me when I see those who suffer from inequity. For you a treasured memory, for others they might mean so much more. This has caused me to reflect on his words and reflect on wht in my life causes me to be "less free." Thank you!