IU alumni reflect on King's legacy
They were living in Maryland at the time. They were just an hour away, and they didn’t make it.
Their youngest daughter had been sick, Viola Taliaferro said.
At their present-day home in Bloomington, Viola Taliaferro put her head down in grief as she recalled how she had felt watching the speech from afar.
“I sat there in our bedroom with her in my arms, watching it on television with tears rolling down my face,” Viola Taliaferro said. “I mean, it was — it’s hard to describe how we felt about Martin, how Martin said for all of us what needed to be said and backed it up.”
Even though they weren’t a part of the crowd at the March on Washington, Viola Taliaferro said they were still active participants in the event from their home.
“All of us had an opportunity to participate in it,” she said. “Just sitting at home, just watching it happen.”
The Taliaferros are known as history makers, within and beyond the Bloomington community.
In 1949, George Taliaferro was the first African-American football player drafted to the NFL. IU alumna Viola Taliaferro became the first African-American to serve as a judge in a Monroe County circuit court.
Viola Taliaferro has two stapled packets of notes — one about her and one about her husband. It includes a resume list of all the jobs they’ve had, all the awards they’ve received and all of the memberships they’ve held.
“Just all this stuff,” she said. “Good grief. What was I thinking?”
In the 1970s, George Taliaferro helped then-IU President John Ryan create an affirmative action plan for the University. Viola Taliaferro served as the juvenile justice consultant to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, satisfying her passion for children’s well-being by helping kids caught up in the court system.
Viola worked for programs such as the Court Appointed Special Advocates and the Monroe County Youth Shelter. A 1977 graduate from IU’s Maurer School of Law, she had a clinic in the law school dedicated to her — The Viola J. Taliaferro Family and Children Mediation Clinic.
Before his NFL career, George Taliaferro was the All-America tailback on IU’s football team, winning its only undefeated Big Ten Conference championship in 1945. He was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame.
The following year, he was drafted to the U.S. Army and stationed in Virginia, where he met Viola. She was attending Virginia State University at the time.
A few years later, he returned to IU to finish his education and football career.
They lived in Baltimore with their four daughters in the 1950s and 1960s — a tumultuous time for every American citizen, especially African-Americans.
“We all knew about Martin Luther King,” she said, “There always have been black people fighting for freedom and to be integrated, but he came at a time. It must’ve been the right time.”
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms served as an impetus to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson supporting and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ruling it unconstitutional to deny citizens the right to use public facilities and barricade individuals from voting.
Viola Taliaferro recalls living in a world with segregation laws everywhere she went, especially before King gained his national presence, she said.
“I lived in an era when we still had black clubs, black activities and we weren’t as integrated,” Viola Taliaferro said. “He opened a lot of doors because he made public a lot of things that many of us talked about, but we weren’t getting the coverage. You wouldn’t get it the way Martin was getting at it, because Martin came with something in mind and that’s what he stuck to.”
King was the voice for the people, George Taliaferro said.
“He spoke through the experiences of a black man, and it was extremely powerful,” he said. “There weren’t too many people in the United States that did not listen to Dr. King at the March on Washington, irrespective of their position.”
Viola Taliaferro had never seen a pro-civil rights event gain that much news coverage before. She experienced a similar feeling when President Obama was elected, she said.
She said they believe the nation has made much progress these last 50 years, but it still has a long way to go.
“Our prisons and jails are loaded with black people,” she said. “In New York the police can stop a person who has done nothing ... Is it just because of color?”
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, between 2002 and 2011, African American and Latino American citizens made up 90 percent of the people stopped by New York Police Department. Eighty-eight percent of the stops did not involve criminal activity.
In 2013, the Supreme Court knocked down a key provision to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would make sure states were not in any way barring citizens to vote.
“We had hoped that wouldn’t have happened,” Viola Taliaferro said, “More than just Martin Luther King, people all around the country, ordinary folk whose names we may never know, worked very hard for this. You deprive a citizen of a right to vote? On what grounds?”
When asked about King’s dream of racial equality, about 79 percent of African-Americans say that a lot needs to be done, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Viola Taliaferro said African-Americans shouldn’t have had to make any progress in the first place.
“I think we need to be treated the way citizens are treated, and we should have access to every right that everyone has,” she said. “We need to stop taking away gains that we made during the Martin Luther King period.”
Follow reporter Aaricka Washington on Twitter @aarickawash.