Alan Page, a former Minnesota Supreme Court justice and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle, told two Mayo High School students in a keynote interview that before ever thinking about playing football, "I had an interest in the law."
The law and the power of an education were the twin themes of Page's message delivered Monday as part of Rochester's 26th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. "We have a Dream" celebration.
Page, 75, said that he was 8 years old when, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state-sponsored racial segregation in public schools in Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka. The decision "impacted me greatly," Page said. It taught him about the law's potential in ensuring justice and equality.
"It gave me the sense that the law had power to change the course of who we are as a people," Page said. "If you think about the Brown decision, it was focused on education. But it had a far broader impact. It really sounded the death knell for state-sponsored segregation across the board."
The annual celebration was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was streamed via Facebook. Page was interviewed by two Mayo High School students, Yasmin Ali and Kesarin Mehta. It also included a virtual "March to Freedom," music, poetry, speakers and keynote panel of local leaders.
It also came at a time when the state of racial progress in the nation is decidedly mixed.
On Wednesday, Kamala Harris will be the first Black woman to be sworn in as vice president. But it's also a time when memories of the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody and the demonstrations and riots that followed are fresh.
Speaking in a deliberate and paced cadence, Page emphasized how children can "achieve whatever one's hopes and dreams are," but too often that inborn curiosity is squelched.
"When they start off, (children are) curious. They want to perform, and somehow, we discourage them. We don't do it directly, but our education system does," he said.
Hoping to inspire both learning and activism, Page and his late wife, Diane, founded the Page Education Foundation more than three decades ago. Since then, it has disbursed $16 million in grants to thousands of college-bound students of color.
The money is free, but there are strings attached. "There is one thing that we ask of our scholars," Page said: That they return to Minnesota schools and classrooms as "tutors, mentors and role models."
"And those young children get to see somebody who looks like them, who maybe is from their neighborhood, somebody who's had some shared experienced, using education as that tool," Page said.
Education is about being prepared, and the better prepared you are, the more power you have to make your own choices, Page said. But that doesn't promise a life without hardship and difficulty.
"My parents used to tell me all the time that life isn't fair and that the world owes you nothing," Page said. "And I've kind of approached things with that in mind. I have the opportunity, too, if I worked hard, if I figure what the rules are, I can be successful."
Wale Elegbede, president of the NAACP's Rochester chapter, said Dr. King challenged people to put people above profit. Four years after delivering his "I have a Dream Speech" in 1963, King noted that there was "broad racist elements still alive" in America. He saw indecision and ambivalence of the population as something that needed to be addressed.
"The word 'Renewal' means replacing, repairing something that is worn-out, run-down or broken, and, indeed, we have so much to renew," Elegbede said. "The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmed Aubery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and countless others highlight the need for that renewal."