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For Utahn, dream still unfolding

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France Davis was 16 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., in the summer of '63. He was only passing through town en route to his home in Georgia, but at the bus station he saw crowds of people and asked what was going on.

There was a huge civil-rights march planned that day, he was told, and hadn't he heard? Davis decided to stick around.

Later that day, as he stood in the sweltering heat, looking up at the speakers as they mostly bored away from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he couldn't know that he was part of history. Standing shoulder to shoulder with 250,000 people, blacks but also whites, all of them surrounded by soldiers, he was about to hear a speech that would become part of American lore.

Davis listened to the speakers one by one — "They were boring and uninteresting, politicians and union leaders, people like that," he recalled — and then the Rev. Martin Luther King stepped to the podium.

What unfolded, of course, was the "I Have a Dream Speech."

"I was absolutely moved by the words," he says. "It was electrifying.

"It altered my lifestyle. It inspired me and helped shape me. I made a commitment to fairness, justice, equality. It was my first experience with that kind of movement."

Like Dr. King, Davis would eventually become a Baptist minister and a peaceful "activist for positive change." Since arriving in Salt Lake City more than 30 years ago, he has been one of Utah's strongest voices for fairness, justice and equality.

Like the rest of the nation, Davis reflected on the "Dream" speech last week on the occasion of its 40th birthday. So did the students in the University of Utah's African-American studies classes. They didn't have to open their textbooks that day — Davis teaches the classes. Here was someone who had firsthand knowledge of that day.

"The asked me a lot of questions about what it was like," he says.

On Aug. 28, 1963, King participated in the march on Washington as part of a rally to support the civil-rights bill that was pending in Congress. King's speech was relatively short — 15 minutes.

According to at least one historian, the speech faded largely from America's memory until King was assassinated.

While most people mostly remember the poetic "I have a dream" section of the speech, Davis was more moved by other passages — specifically, the reference to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the analogy that the promissory note of freedom guaranteed by the Constitution had been marked "insufficient funds" for American blacks.

"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check," King said.

"The I-Have-a-Dream part is what everyone else talks about," says Davis, "but that was the least important part."

After that rally in Washington, Davis' and King's paths would cross again. As a reporter for a student newspaper, Davis interviewed King a couple of years later. Davis marched with King from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. He witnessed King's "How Long?" speech in Montgomery in 1965. He spent so much time following King that he flunked out of college.

"I was right in the middle of it," he once told the Deseret News. "I spent a lot of time talking with (Dr. King). His stance regarding nonviolence and love and not hate has to be the trademark of the movement. . . . He was part of the reason I eventually went to the ministry."

Last week, America was asking itself if the dream that King discussed in his speech came true. Davis, too, was asked the question.

"Some of it has, some of it hasn't," says Davis. "We need to get (black) people elected and get people owning businesses. We've still got a ways to go."

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. E-mail may be sent to drob@desnews.com.