In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Bowdoin College to speak about the civil rights movement and the vital imperative for Americans to end segregation and discrimination in their country.
This year is the 50th anniversary of King’s death. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, when he was 39 years old.
Bowdoin’s Political Forum, a non-partisan student organization, brought Dr. King to the College, part of the group’s effort to invite black civil rights leaders to campus to inspire students to action.
As Frederick J. Stoddard ’64, 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.”
A day before King’s visit to Bowdoin, Bayard Rustin spoke here on May 5, 1964, in Pickard Theater. Rustin was the chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States.
King was scheduled to speak in Pickard the following evening, but publicity for the talk had spread quickly, and it was clear Pickard Theater would be too small to accommodate the expected audience.
So on May 6, 1964, Stoddard and President James Stacy Coles introduced Reverend King to an overflow crowd of about 1,100 people at First Parish Church.
King’s hour-long address was recorded by the Bowdoin radio station WBOR. But it went missing for many years until Bowdoin archivist Caroline Moseley came upon it when she was reviewing boxes of uncatalogued WBOR recordings.
“Most of the recordings were of Bowdoin’s Glee Club and Meddiebempsters so I was amazed (and a little incredulous) when I saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name scrawled on the back of one of the tape boxes,” Moseley recounted. “I realized that this was most likely an actual recording of Martin Luther King at Bowdoin…but it was not until the audio tape was transferred to CD that I knew for sure, and then I was thrilled and also grateful that the recording was still in good condition.”
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.”
“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,” he said. “An equally important result would be attracting more African-American students to our College.”
*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.