By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
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.
Phil Blair, who was mayor of Oswego when he came up with the idea for a celebration in honor of King in 1993, approached Cavitt, his friend and former classmate, with a request that he organize the first one. It started small, with about 15 people, but in recent years it has grown.
“I’m proud of our small city, that this is held every year,” Blair said. “The city supports race relations, but the fact that we have this commemoration every year as a formal event, I think is extremely unique for a city the size of Oswego.”
It also has earned Cavitt accolades from first lady Michelle Obama, who sent a card; from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who sent a lengthy letter; and from former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
But it hasn’t always been easy.
“I fish all the time, and about three years ago I was out in the country on my way to fish, and a guy in a pickup turned around and shot at me with a high-powered gun,” Cavitt said. “The window shattered right by my head.”
He interpreted that as racially motivated.
There have been hateful telephone calls, too, to Cavitt and his wife of 50 years, Carol.
And Cavitt knows that each year, he will receive a flier in the mail that berates King. They always are postmarked Kansas City, with no return address, but Cavitt said he tries to not let that bother him. He said he focuses on changes that have occurred and progress that has been made — like the nation electing and re-electing its first black president.
Cavitt acknowledged, though, having frequent dreams in which someone enters the annual celebration and shoots him. His son and his doctor have suggested that he quit organizing the event.
“The mayor may put a guard at the door for our safety, but I’m not going to quit doing it,” he said. “I’m 69, and I’d like to quit, but I won’t, because they’ll think they ran me off.”
OSWEGO’S MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY CELEBRATION begins at noon Saturday in the Oswego Community Center at the Labette County Fairgrounds. It includes the Rev. Edith Triplett, of Joplin, as keynote speaker; the SEK Men’s Choir from Parsons and Independence; and singer Flo Taylor, of Joplin, who will perform an original song written for the occasion. Also on tap are a Divine Evangelistic Ministries group and Oswego Mayor Glenn Fischer. A lunch of chili, cornbread and spaghetti will be served at no charge.