It’s a sad chapter in American history. Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, ordered his police officers to attack children with dogs and firehoses during the 1963 Children’s March.

One child who stood trembling in front of Connor on the third day of marching asked humbly for an end to segregation. The boy was 12-year-old Freeman Hrabowski III.

Freeman, named for the first Hrabowski born as a free man instead of a freed slave, had watched on television with the rest of the country as Connor directed violence at schoolchildren over the previous two days. Weeks earlier, Connor had arrested Martin Luther King Jr., leading to the iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Now this young boy was the one standing in the center of the front line of America’s great civil rights fight.

“I can’t tell you how my knees were shaking as I arrived at the steps of City Hall,” he wrote years later. “And who was there but Bull Connor himself.”

Connor used a slur to ask Freeman what he wanted, Hrabowski recounted Tuesday at Brigham Young University during a forum assembly that ended with a resounding standing ovation for most of a minute.

“I looked up at him and I said, ‘Sir, we want to kneel and pray for our freedom to go to better schools.’”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who responded as a boy to Martin Luther King Jr.'s call in 1963 for children to march against segregated schools, delivers a BYU Forum Assembly address at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. | Ashlee Jarvis/BYU

Connor was furious.

“He looked down at me really upset and he spat in my face, picked me up and threw me into the police wagon,” Hrabowski told several thousand BYU students, faculty and staff at the Marriott Center. “Five days we spent in that jail. It was a horrible experience, horrific. We were treated like animals.”

Hrabowski loved math so much — “I get goosebumps doing math,” he said — that his parents lured him to see King speak using Peanut M&Ms and algebra problems.

King said that if children marched, America would see that young Blacks knew the difference between right and wrong and wanted to attend the better white schools that were closed to them.

Back at home, Hrabowski told his parents he wanted to march. They said absolutely not, aware that he would be arrested because the city refused to issue a permit. The march would be a nonviolence campaign. When young Freeman called his parents hypocrites, they sent him to his room.

They prayed through the night and told Freeman the next day that he could join the Children’s Crusade, as the march also was known.

“The point that my parents made, that my church made, that Dr. King made to the children was, ‘You’re all children of God, and we believe in you, and anything is possible,’” Hrabowski said

He scoffed at the idea he was brave for standing up to Bull Connor and segregation.

“I was not a courageous kid. The only thing I’d attacked was a math problem,” he said to laughter.

Connor oversaw the arrest of 2,000 children, according to History.com. Hrabowski said he protected some of them from tough juvenile delinquents in the jail by reading the Bible, which deterred attacks. While they were jailed, the children’s parents gathered outside. King came to visit and said, “What you do this day will have an impact on kids not yet born.”

Hrabowski clearly impacted BYU students during the Forum, connecting with them quickly and richly, perhaps unsurprising for a man who spent 30 years as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Time Magazine called him one of America’s 10 best college presidents in 2009 and one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012.

He asked BYU’s students to show by a raise of hands who loved math and science and who loved English and history. Then he asked who loved both and was surprised by the number of hands.

Brigham Young University students raise their hands in response to a question from Freeman Hrabowkski III during a BYU Forum Assembly address at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. | Ashlee Jarvis/BYU

“This is a pretty nerdy group. I like this group,” he said, laughing along with the audience.

Hrabowski told the Deseret News after his lecture, which he delivered without a prepared text and with few notes, that one thing he will never forget about speaking at BYU is the response to his question about how many students had served or planned to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU.

He estimated that well over 80% raised their hands.

“There’s nowhere in our country that I would go and see that kind of response,” he said during the lecture. “That makes you so blessed, to be with people who are saying what you’re saying, that we want to make a difference.”

Hrabowski was another in a long line of civil rights activists who have appeared at BYU. Rosa Parks visited in the 1990s. Martin Luther King III spoke in 2021, as did the Rev. Dr. William Barber II.

Hrabowski became determined to make a difference for Black students in the fields of math and science. He had loved math so much in school that when his teacher gave his class 10 math problems, he’d ask for 10 more.

“The whole class would go, ‘Shut up, Freeman,’” he said to laughter. “I got kicked more times for mathematics. I’ve got scars that I’m proud of on my legs.”

He succeeded. He turned UMBC, once a commuter university, into one of the nation’s leading sources of Black students who get Ph.D.s in science and engineering, Time reported. In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Hrabowski to chair the newly created President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. He wrote books about raising academically successful African American young men and women. His latest book is “The Resilient University: How Purpose and Inclusion Drive Student Success.”

Hrabowski tied a story about his grandmother to the reason he wanted to come to BYU. She taught him to stay on his knees, meaning that he should pray always. She told him he was going places in society but to remember that “the farther up you go, the harder the fall will be, that somehow each of us gets knocked down in different ways. She said, ‘But if you stay on your knees, the fall won’t be so bad.’ Her point was about humility.”

She told him he should be humble enough that people knew he cared deeply about them and their authenticity. He said he came to BYU to learn more about Latter-day Saints.

“I wanted to learn to appreciate the depth of this faith that you have, the ways in which you work to help other people, the ways in which you make a difference around the world,” he said.

Hrabowski wrote an essay for Deseret Magazine’s 2022 issue on the fate of religious universities. His piece was titled, “Be yourself: Why higher education — and America — is strengthened by authenticity.”

He issued two challenges at the end of his lecture.

The first was a gift from his mother, an English teacher, that he paid forward to BYU students.

“We’re all helping to educate people in different ways,” she told her son. “We’re teaching them how to love learning, and how to love God. It’s that spirit of giving to other people that’s how we continue to live. I will always be here, because my spirit is in my students. They love God. They love reading. They love literature. I will live through them.”

“I challenge you, BYU,” Hrabowski said, “to remember this old guy who walked with Dr. King who says to you, ‘You are the essence of God’s Spirit. You are prepared to serve. You believe in the faith of your religion. You believe in each other. And when you go out, you will each be a light to the world.’”

The second challenge to the students was to master their thoughts.

“Thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character,” he said. “Watch your character; it becomes your destiny, dreams and values. God bless you and hold on to your faith.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III delivers a BYU Forum Assembly address at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. | Ashlee Jarvis/BYU