Drew Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Martin Luther King Jr. Speaks at Drew

By Jocelyn Freeman | Staff Writer

9 mins read
Photo of King (center), his professor and mentor Kelsey (left) and University President Oxnam (right) courtesy of The Drew Archives

Welcome back Drewids! A new semester means more historical spotlights of Drew’s rich past. This semester things will be functioning a little differently. Drew Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow will become a bi-weekly occurrence and will appear on weeks in which The Acorn is printed and distributed around campus for your convenience.

As all readers of this fine edition are hopefully aware, February is nationally recognized as Black History Month. This month was chosen to celebrate the birthday of Fredrick Douglass, an important abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln, who issued “The Emancipation Proclamation.” To honor the significance of this month as well as that of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which occurred before our semester began, this column’s two issues will be dedicated to Black history at Drew University.

In January 1964, it was announced to the Drew community that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would be visiting The Forest the following month. King had recently been named 1963’s “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine and was invited to speak to the Drew and Madison communities by the Convocation Committee, Drew’s committee dedicated to selecting convocation speakers to visit campus. In a university press release dated Jan. 23, 1964, Drew’s administration cited the reasons for inviting King, such as his commitment to making “civil rights a living practice, not just a principle” and his advocacy for non-violence in relation to his theological training. King was able to turn to Dr. George Kelsey as a professor, mentor and friend while studying theology at Morehouse College in the late 1940s. At the time of King’s visit, Kelsey was serving as a professor of Christian Ethics at Drew. He is pictured in several of the photos taken during King’s historic visit. 

The student response to King’s visit was captured in the Jan. 20, 1964 edition of The Acorn published two weeks before King’s speech. Following major events such as the March on Washington on Aug. 28 of the previous year, students considered King to be “a symbol of the revolution of 1963 and the future, for the realization of the civil rights of all men” as written in The Acorn. The author of the article went on to again praise King’s use of non-violence and civil disobedience, pointing to Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau as sources of inspiration for King. The article states that “no one can say why Martin Luther King Jr. is the recognized and undisputed symbol of civil rights movements in the United States. He is unimposing and seems quite ordinary, but, when he speaks, people listen.”

Photo of students and community members finding their seats in a crowded Baldwin Gymnasium before King addresses the crowd courtesy of The Drew Archives.

On Feb. 5, 1964, over 5,000 people gathered in the Baldwin Gymnasium and in locations around campus that were set up to broadcast King’s speech. Another 5,000 people were turned away due to spatial constraints. After an introduction from University President Robert Oxnam, King delivered a nearly hour-long speech entitled “American Dream,” which was recorded and can be accessed via the University Archives

King began his speech by stating that the “American dream is a dream yet unfilled.” He went on to quote the Declaration of Independence and the deeply important phrase “all men.” At this point, King noted, “It does not say some men, it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men which includes black men. It doesn’t say all Protestants, but it says all men which includes Catholics. It doesn’t say all Gentiles, it says all men which includes Jews.” He went on to say, “Indeed, slavery and racial segregation are strange paradoxes in the nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal.” 

King continued his speech by condemning the misuse of the Bible and how it was utilized to support the concept of racial inferiority. King stated that Black Americans “lag because of segregation and discrimination. And criminal responses are not racial, they are environmental.” He also claimed, “Poverty, ignorance, social isolation, economic deprivation breed crime whatever the racial group may be.”

Following the conclusion of King’s speech, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions. While these questions were not recorded as part of the speech, a press release following the event described the Drew community’s questions and the advice that King had to offer. King called for community members to write to their state representatives and “[ask] them to support the Civil Rights Bill with the F.E.P.C. and Public Accommodations packet intact.” Students also posed questions about the importance of mobilizing the Black voting population. King responded by saying that the Black vote would be the most important in the election of Lyndon B. Johnson in November 1964.

King’s visit to Drew was a wonderful opportunity for the predominantly white community on campus to hear him speak. King brought the voice of a Southern civil rights leader to northern New Jersey at a time when college students and community members may have only had access to the civil rights discourse through national newspapers, radio and television.

Drew students took King’s goal of striving for an equal America to heart. In the spring of 1964, Drew students began a boycott of Madison barbers that refused to cut Black patrons’ hair. According to a New York Times article from Dec. 18, 1964, the boycott occurred after an African student was refused service at Philip Gatti’s barbershop. At the time of the boycott, only 1 percent of the 1,200 students at Drew University were Black. Later that year, on Dec. 17, a ruling was made by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights that stated that no barber could refuse to cut Black patrons’ hair. Whether or not the boycott and subsequent push for a ruling to protect community members’ civil rights were inspired by King’s visit is a question that is unanswered in the article, but regardless, his visit would be remembered for decades to come. 

Today, King has a federal holiday to honor his memory, which occurs before Drew students return to campus for the spring semester. Despite this fact, the time is still taken to honor his legacy. This year, on Jan. 19, a luncheon was held to commemorate the holiday and celebrate students who have performed acts of service for their community. In years to come, the Drew community should continue to embrace the legacy of King and celebrate the day off of classes by giving back to their community.

Jocelyn Freeman is a sophomore majoring in English, Chinese and history.

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