OSWEGO, Kan. —
He has been shot at and threatened, and every year he gets an anonymous denunciation of Martin Luther King Jr. in the mail, but for 20 years, Floyd Cavitt Jr. has remained undeterred in his efforts to honor the slain civil rights leader.
Cavitt heads up Oswego’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. This year’s events are set for Saturday.
Now Cavitt faces another challenge: keeping alive the legacy of King not only in the face of lingering hostility but also for the generations who came along after King died.
“We need to keep the dream alive because I don’t think young kids today understand, and they need to,” Cavitt said. “It’s a big deal in Oswego. People come from all over, and I know it’s the right thing to do.”
Blacks first migrated to Southeast Kansas from Southern states in the post-Civil War era, but until King and other civil rights leaders came along, they often were treated as second-class citizens. “First Century of Education in Labette County,” published in 1963 by the Kansas State Teachers Association, noted that in elementary grades, white and black students were educated in separate buildings by different instructors.
Cavitt, who was born in 1943 in Oswego, attended a school for black students called Eastside at the corner of Third and Iowa streets. When he was in junior high, the schools were integrated after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cavitt still keeps a framed reminder of those days: a poster with a photograph titled “Colored School Room, 1945.” It reads: “Opportunity: Being able to see past traditional barriers and having an intense belief in your ideas and abilities will help you take advantage of any opportunity.”
Despite the separate schools, he doesn’t have hostile memories from his childhood.
“When we were growing up here, we never heard the N-word,” Cavitt recalled. “People were nice. Kids were nice. No one bothered us.”
Cavitt became a celebrated athlete in high school. A yellowed newspaper clipping recognizes a 99-yard punt return in a 1961 football game against St. Patrick’s in Parsons, and he racked up numerous wins in track, baseball and basketball. He graduated from Oswego High School in 1962 and joined the Air Force. Two years later, on Oct. 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence.
Cavitt, still in the Air Force, was stationed in Topeka in 1968 when he learned that King had been shot as he stood on the second-floor balcony of a Memphis motel. Cavitt was in a mess hall, eating dinner, when the news was broadcast over the loudspeaker.
“I was mad. I hated all white people for about half an hour,” Cavitt said of that moment. “And then I realized that everybody didn’t kill him, only one person killed him. Just one guy.”
Cavitt’s anger subsided, and after his military service he focused on two things: helping to raise his younger siblings after his mother’s death, and building athletes by coaching in the Amateur Athletic Union.