It was 50 years ago this year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Bowdoin College to speak about the civil rights movement and the importance of ending segregation and discrimination in America.
In the spring of 1964 Bowdoin’s Political Forum, a non-partisan student organization, was planning a series of lectures on civil rights.
While the group would typically sponsor lectures by academicians, for the topic of civil rights they chose instead to invite black leaders involved in the movement.
As Frederick J. Stoddard, one of the Political Forum leaders, recalled in an article appearing in Bowdoin Magazine in the winter of 1995, “We felt that [we] could make a difference by bringing the most prominent civil rights leaders in America to the College.”
“I wrote and sent the letters of invitation to Dr. Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin, and I was amazed that they accepted,” says Stoddard, a Boston psychiatrist who was president of Bowdoin’s Political Forum in 1964.
Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States, spoke on May 5 in Pickard Theater.
His speech, titled “Goals and Strategies Necessary in the Achievement of Equal Rights,” addressed the Civil Rights Bill before Congress.
Dr. King was scheduled to speak in Pickard the following evening, but publicity for the talk had reached a wide audience, and it was clear Pickard Theater would be too small to accommodate the expected attendance, and another venue was selected.
On May 6, 1964, Stoddard and President Coles introduced the Reverend King to an overflow crowd of about 1,100 people at First Parish Church.
King’s speech made an indelible impact on the audience.
Among those inspired was Wayne Burton ’66, who recalled in a January 2005 article appearing in the Lynn, Mass., Daily Item: “I asked him [after the speech] what all he was saying had to do with me. He said, ‘If your conscience stops at the border of Maine then you are less than who you should be.’ I said I would do what I could to help him.”
The recording was missing for many years, but was discovered by Caroline Moseley, the Bowdoin Library’s processing archivist, who had the tape transferred to CD and transcribed.
While the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, holds the copyright to the speech, Bowdoin has permission to make the audio available online in conjunction with occasions such as the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month.*
As Stoddard recalled in Bowdoin Magazine, the visit by King and Rustin to Bowdoin in 1964 “had a permanent impact on our values, historical sense, and later commitments.”
He hopes having the recording of King’s address available to a wide audience will extend its influence.
“Students today may feel less able to contribute to the political process than we did during our time at Bowdoin,” he says.
“It was 1964, the height of the Civil Rights Movement and just before the Civil Rights Act passed in Congress. The U.S. was just getting involved in Vietnam, and the Vietnam protests followed and were linked to the civil rights protests. Martin Luther King’s and Bayard Rustin’s visit to Bowdoin was a historic event. It’s my hope that students today will be inspired by the recording to similarly find ways to invite political activists as well as noted academicians to the Bowdoin campus. An equally important result would be attracting more African-American students to our College.”
This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances at the College include the Children’s Celebration 10:30 a.m.–12 p.m., in Daggett Lounge, Thorne Hall; and the Climbing PoeTree Performance, 7:30 p.m–9 p.m. in the Visual Arts Center, Kresge Auditorium.
In February, former NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous will deliver the Martin Luther King Jr. Common Hour talk titled “That One Big Thing” at 12:30 p.m., Feb. 21. (Further details to be announced)
*At other times, listen to the recording and read the transcript at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives on the third floor of the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library. Special Collections is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information call 207-725-3288.