50 Years Ago Today, Rustin and King Made Their Mark on Bowdoin

Dr. King at Bowdoin College May 6, 1964.

Dr. King at Bowdoin College May 6, 1964.

The days of May 5 and May 6 are two of Bowdoin’s most historic. On May 5, 1964, Bayard Rustin, one of the chief strategists of the civil rights movement, came to the College to speak about the importance of passing the Civil Rights Act.

Rustin’s talk preceded the political, poetic and moving speech that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made at the First Parish Church the next day, May 6. In his address, King spoke about whether progress was being made in the nation’s race relations.

“We have been able to see the walls of racial segregation gradually crumble,” King said, about 16 minutes into the speech. “To put it figuratively and in biblical language, we have broken loose from the Egypt of slavery. We have moved through the wilderness of legal segregation, and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration…I am absolutely convinced that the system of segregation is on its deathbed, and the only thing uncertain about it now is how costly the segregationists will make the funeral. We’ve come a long, long way.” But, he added, “We have a long, long way to go in our nation.”

According to reports at the time, the applause from the 1,100 people in the audience to King’s concluding words — when he recited the spiritual line, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last” — was “thunderous,” “a torrent.”

Dr. King’s hour-long address was recorded by the Bowdoin radio station WBOR. 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.

A speech delivered at Bowdoin by Bayard Rustin, with illustration by Thomas Cornell

A speech delivered at Bowdoin by Bayard Rustin, with illustration by Thomas Cornell

Although King’s visit is the one better remembered, Rustin affected Bowdoin students as much as or even more than King, according to Dr. Fred Stoddard Jr. ’64, who was the leader of the Bowdoin student group that invited those two powerhouses of the civil rights movement. After his speech, Rustin lingered in the lounge of Moulton Union with about 100 students, answering questions and talking until 3 a.m.

“We were at that intense and wide-ranging discussion, which explored with students and faculty the strategies that Rustin used in his organization of civil rights protests,” Stoddard writes in the article, “Thirty Years Ago,” which he co-wrote with Berle M. Schiller ’65 and Christos Gianopoulos’64 for the Winter 1995 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. “It set the stage for Dr. King’s speech the next night.”

Dr. and Mrs. Fred Stoddard '64 at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC.

Dr. Fred Stoddard ’64 and Matilda Stoddard at the MLK memorial in Washington DC. Stoddard will speak on Dr. King’s legacy at Bowdoin later in May.

As Stoddard recalled in the Bowdoin Magazine, the visit by King and Rustin to Bowdoin in 1964 “had a permanent impact on our values, historical sense, and later commitments.”

Stoddard is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston. He will be giving a talk at Bowdoin during his upcoming 50th class reunion on the ways in which King’s life and death impacted him and his long-lasting commitment to pacifism, equality and justice.

After graduating from Bowdoin, Stoddard focused his career in medicine in child and adolescent psychiatry, but he remained committed to social change. Within the American Psychiatric Association, he helped to advance the direction of American psychiatry to oppose the Vietnam War; to remove the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder; to advance the place of women and minorities; and to push for psychiatry to become more scientific.

thumb: