At the end of January, Wesleyan hosted its annual week-long celebration of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy. 50 years ago this past fall, King visited the University to address students about the importance of non-violent action in the pursuit of civil rights. A visit to the Argus archives unveiled a series of articles from October 1963 about his visit, which was met with great enthusiasm and support from the student body.
As stated in the first of these articles, King presented the students with a sermon in Memorial Chapel on Sunday, Oct. 20, titled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” He also gave a speech exploring the topic of “The American dream revisited.”
King’s entrance, according to the Oct. 22, 1963 issue of The Argus, was met with a standing ovation, and “as Tom Shaw ’66 led the audience in ‘We Shall Overcome,’ many joined hands during the song as an indication of the unity of feeling in the group.”
King stated that “the winds of change are blowing in America,” that “the old order is passing,” and that the time for peaceful action was upon them. He began by discussing the massive divide between whites and blacks in church.
The article examines King’s self-perception, stating that he “pointed out that years of subjugation had altered the Negro’s own image of himself.” King emphasized that, in addition to physical suppression, the defeat of the “soul and also spirit” was debilitating.
The article continues to outline King’s belief that the “problems of the Negro were ‘environmental, not hereditary.’” King urged the students to take a stand against this issue, demonstrating that the ideals of Christian brotherhood are entirely contrary to segregation.
Still, he advised the community to practice Christian modes of opposition in their struggle for equality. Violence was not King’s purpose or intention, and he urged his listeners to stay away from brutal methods of action.
“Never let any man pull you so low to hate him,” he is quoted as saying.
Known for his beautiful and powerful prose, King closed his
speech by saying that “every person from bass black to treble white is significant on God’s keyboard.”
The article also demonstrated that King’s main point in his sermon was to remind students that the most pertinent and effective means of action was compassion.
“Love, the most durable power in the world and the highest good, is the weapon that Christians must use against immortality to combat the death of soul represented by segregation,” King said.
Following his appearance at Wesleyan, King was scheduled to return to Birmingham, Ala., a topic that was widely discussed at a press conference held after his sermon. King was supposed to speak at Yale after coming to Wesleyan, but he had to cancel the event after racial strife in Birmingham became too dangerous to ignore. King believed that desegregating Birmingham would serve as a gateway to racial equality in the South in general.
“If we can crack Birmingham, we can crack the whole system in the South,” King said.
He told the press that the issues in Alabama needed to become accessible to the national population to gain ground.
A month before King’s appearance at Wesleyan, the now-infamous Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, causing the death of four young girls. At the time the article covering this conference was published, no culprit had been found. “It is strange and disappointing that no one has been apprehended or been indicted for the bombing of the church and the murder of the four children,” King said.
King also said that the chances of the enactment of a well-protected civil rights bill were slim, despite his desire for one. Everything that he wanted to accomplish would be “weakened by the administration,” as another article states. The resulting Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not as strong as King and his supporters had hoped it would be, but it was undoubtedly a monumental step toward equality.
An editorial printed by The Argus preceding King’s momentous visit brought his powerful words home. The editorial focused on King’s impassioned nature and dedication to his cause as the keys to his success in the field.
“Some of us will realize that no man can remain actively dedicated to something like the civil rights movement through humiliation, disappointment, imprisonment, and threats unless he is thoroughly committed [to] certain values in life,” it read. “We will see this commitment in King and we will ask ourselves if even a shadow of it exists within us.”
The editorial remarks that King’s daily struggles were much more difficult than “the commitment of being a good student leader, a good track man, or a conscientious fraternity officer.” It adds that “we probably, in these later years, will not do anything about racial discrimination, poor leadership or corrupt practices in our communities,” because, as the writer believes, college simply prepares students for generic office jobs and does not teach them to handle serious issues like those that activists such as King were addressing.
The editorial concludes by questioning the ideals that Wesleyan students apparently demonstrated in this era, which they possibly adopted “to shield [themselves] from more dangerous commitments—those which might expose [them] to a little bit more inconvenience or even to disappointment, ridicule, or humiliation?”