CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The march on Washington and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" on Aug. 28, 1963, was a turning point for many of us.
A short time prior, John F. Kennedy had come to the University of Michigan to unveil his dream of the Peace Corps -- as a force for peaceful change instead of reliance on physical force. As a student in Ann Arbor, it was not surprising that I joined the Peace Corps soon thereafter.
The Peace Corp path eventually took me to Ghana, the country of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Dr. W.E.B. and Shirley DuBois, and George Padmore. But on route, there were two summers of Peace Corps training, Dartmouth in New Hampshire in 1964 and Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1965. It was while at Morehouse that I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church and met with Dr. King. Dr. King was then planning a visit to Ghana and we made plans to meet there. I made it; he did not.
Upon arrival in Accra, we received instructions about our role to counter the world image of "The Ugly American." Since Nkrumah was nonaligned on the world scene and had also the in-country presence of those from China and the USSR, we also received the precautionary evacuation code word of "desist." If we heard the word, we were told to immediately head for the airport. I was assigned as the first and only American to a school in the Ashanti region. There, I found two volunteers from the Soviet Union, my first experience with people from the "enemy camp." On the school grounds, we lived side-by-side until the coup occurred about six months later. The morning of the coup, Vladimar and I sat on the stoop of my dwelling and waited for the Army truck. We knew one of us would be picked up. I stayed.
This series of events was rather heady for somebody who was then underexposed to the worldly Cold War scene. However, it was a turning point in my decision to pursue my education in economics, since I wanted a better understanding of "who was doing what when to whom." After two years in Ghana, I arrived at West Virginia University and entered its new Ph.D. program in economics in 1967.
The WVU scene then shaped the domestic struggle for social justice. Many of us became involved with Miners for Democracy after the assassination of Joseph Yablonski, who had challenged Tony Boyle for the United Mine Workers of America presidency. It was also the time of implementing the proclamations of the New Frontier, War on Poverty and the Great Society, with programs such as the Office of Economic Opportunity, Community Action Agencies and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).
In Southern West Virginia, that movement fueled activity at the West Virginia Institute of Technology, which was led by Leonard C. Nelson. On the faculty, he had an economist named Jack Robertson, who hired me in 1971.
Then, Tech was a melting pot for diversity and activities. The Ghanaian student who had pounded on my door early one morning to tell me about the coup that began with the movement of troops from barracks behind my house followed me to Tech and became active in the student government. He then returned to Ghana, became a successful businessman and, two decades later, sent his daughter to Tech, as well. Iranian students opposed to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and hounded by Savak, the brutal Iranian police force trained by the CIA, were politically active. Also in the student mix were coal miners who were the victims of mechanization or injury and had a history of striving for economic justice.
At Tech, Dr. Jack was coordinating "War on Poverty" activities, including low-income affordable-housing projects, Appalachian Research and Defense/Legal Aid, black-lung advocacy training and an array of economic development ventures. He had a dream, and I joined the vision. Jack retired and died, but out of those initiatives emerged the Southern Appalachian Labor School, a social-change community-based organization that exists today and continues to work on affordable housing, economic development, health and education.
This year, Jack's wife, Connie, died. Connie spent a major part of her life as the counselor at Gauley Bridge High School. Recently, their daughter, Jane, and her husband, Dale, hosted a tribute event for her life at the Glen Ferris Inn. The event brought many of us, including Dr. Nelson, back together to reflect on the past journey to make a difference. For many of us, it was an appropriate closure for a half-century of unbelievable challenges -- and significant social change. It was also the time to realize that much more needs to be done if what has changed will prevail and what needs to happen will occur.
To paraphrase a scene from the famous film "The Inheritance," the quest for economic and social justice has not ended; it has only begun.
David, a retired economics professor and director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School, is a Gazette contributing columnist.