Campus News

Convocation Reading Recalls Martin Luther King Jr. Visit to Bowdoin

Story posted September 05, 2003

Convocation Reading: "Voices from Bowdoin's Past"
by Craig W. Bradley, Dean of Student Affairs
September 3, 2003

It is our customary practice at Convocation and at Baccalaureate to read from a document from Bowdoin's past to provide a sense of the history of this place.

As you probably know, last Thursday, August 28th, was the 40th anniversary of one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights movement -- the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom -- at which 250,000 Americans marched on Washington and gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear a number of speakers, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King who presented his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Nine months after Dr. King gave that speech in Washington, on May 6, 1964, he spoke at Bowdoin. He was originally scheduled to speak in this auditorium [Pickard Theater], but, due to the anticipated size of the audience, which ultimately numbered over 1,100, the event was moved across the street to the First Parish Church. The College radio station, WBOR, tape-recorded Dr. King's speech; this tape was subsequently reformatted and transcribed and is available in the College Archives. I would like to thank Caroline Moseley and Richard Lindemann in the Archives for their help in retrieving this material and Patrick Rael in the History Department for his valuable assistance.

First, some background about Dr. King and this particular period in the Civil Rights movement: In April 1963, Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was published -- it was written in response to a letter from eight white religious leaders in Alabama appealing, "For law and order and common sense in dealing with racial problems in Alabama." These clergy criticized the protestors for lack of moderation and urged blacks to pursue their demands "in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets." They saw the demonstrations as "...unwise and untimely." In Dr. King's response -- his letter from Birmingham jail -- he wrote that he hoped "...that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom."

In his address at Bowdoin the following year, we hear language drawn from King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," evoking the theme reflected in the title of his book Why We Can't Wait.

Speaking at Bowdoin on May 6, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, said:

"...segregation is still with us. Even though we have made some strides, we must face the fact that racial segregation is still alive. In its legal de jure form in the South. And it's still alive in its subtle de facto forms in the North. This is true in areas all over our nation. We must face the fact that even though it may be true...from a figurative point of view, that old man segregation is on his deathbed, history has proven that social systems have great last-minute breathing power. The guardians of the status quo are always on hand with oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.

"So segregation is still with us. If democracy is to live, segregation must die. Segregation is a cancer in the body politic, which must be removed before our moral health can be realized. May I say to you this evening that we do not have long to solve this problem?

"I know there are those of you that are saying -- slow up. There are those that are saying to the Negro and his allies in the white community -- you ought to cool off. You are pushing things too fast. They are saying -- adopt a policy of moderation. If moderation means moving on towards the goal of justice with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue that all men must seek to achieve during this tense period of transition. If moderation means slowing up in the move for justice, and capitulating to the undemocratic practices of the guardians of the deadening status quo, then moderation is a tragic vice that all men of good will must condemn. We can't afford to slow up. We have our self-respect to maintain. But even more than that, because of our love for America, we can't afford to slow up.

"...in a real sense, the hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. And we must act now before it is too late.

"...racial discrimination must be uprooted from American society because it is morally wrong.

"...we must get rid of segregation because it is evil and it is sinful.

"The great challenge facing our nation today is to move on with determination to solve this problem and to end segregation and discrimination and to remove them from every area of our life. I would like to mention some of the things that are to be done if this problem is to be solved.

"First, I would like to mention the role of the federal government because I think that is an important role. The federal government must play an important role if this problem is to be solved by standing up in a firm, forthright manner in protecting the rights of all of the citizens of this nation. Now if the federal government is to do its job we have got to get rid of one or two myths that are circulated all over the nation. They are being circulated now a great deal.

"One is the myth of time. We hear this over and over again. The people that live with this argument contend that only time can solve this problem which we face in race relations. They would say to the Negro, 'Just be patient and nice and continue to pray. And in a hundred years or two hundred years, this problem will work itself out.' These are the people that live with the myth of time.

"The only answer we can give to this myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. It may well be that the forces of ill will in our nation have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. I am convinced that we will have to repent, in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people who will bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, but for the appalling silence of the good people. Somewhere along the way we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts, and persistent works, of dedicated individuals that are willing to be co-workers with God. Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. It is always necessary to help time -- and to realize that the time is always right to do right." -- Martin Luther King, Jr., Bowdoin College, May 6, 1964

In July of that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in public establishments in this country.

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