Story posted January 12, 2009
It was just one day on the Bowdoin campus in May 1964. It was just one speech delivered by one man. But the subject was a watershed moment in American history: the struggle to end racial segregation. The man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It has been 45 years since a group of Bowdoin students organized to bring the civil rights leader to Maine. King delivered his stirring Bowdoin College address to an overflow crowd of about 1,100 people.
As part of Bowdoin's observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and upcoming Black History Month, a recording of the speech can be heard on the Bowdoin Web site. Listen to King's speech here
While his words made an indelible impact on the audience, the speech itself was "lost" for many years until Bowdoin Library Archivist Caroline Moseley discovered a recording of it made by the Bowdoin radio station WBOR. The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, holds the copyright to the speech, which Bowdoin is permitted to make available online during occasions such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month.
"King's coming here on that wonderful day and giving that powerful speech in 1964 is very much a part of the continuum of Bowdoin's history," notes Olufemi Vaughan, Bowdoin's Geoffrey Canada Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Bowdoin Africana Studies Program. "Many people don't realize the progressive role this college has played in the advancement of people who are in the margins of society. Bowdoin educated African American students when so many were denying them education. It's Bowdoin's legacy from the very beginning."
It's significant, notes Vaughan, that the initiative for King's speech was undertaken by Bowdoin students. "There is a deep and profound moral message of an event like this that transcends the speech itself. It speaks clearly to how important students can be in helping to transform our world and perhaps make it a better place. It's not just what we say, but what we do."
The King speech is also part of an extensive holding of primary research materials on African American history that are contained in the Bowdoin College Library's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives. Among the manuscript, archival and print collections are sources rich for research into slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Bowdoin College played a prominent role in the 19th century as a flagship institution dedicated to the education of African America students. Among its graduates:
John Brown Russwurm, Class of 1826, was Bowdoin's first African American graduate and is thought to be the third African American graduated from an American college. Bowdoin's affiliated Medical School of Maine matriculated six African Americans between 1826 and 1864. Bowdoin graduates and faculty played key roles in anti-slavery and abolitionist activities, among them Oliver Otis Howard—Class 1850—who was Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau) and founding president of Howard University.
"People come from all over the world to look at these papers; they are part of our collective history as Americans," notes Vaughan. "They shed light on abolitionist history, the underground railroad, and the intersection between the anti-slavery movement and women's history in Maine. Most big colleges and universities don't have these kind of primary documents—it's a treasure trove."
As the nation prepares for another momentous day—the January 20, 2009, inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American president—history will again welcome a leader who has come to symbolize profound inclusiveness. "Like King," says Vaughan, "Obama is ours as Americans. He is not owned by any one group; it's something that we, in our collective history, have said that we can try as people: black, white and brown.
"And if it weren't for young, predominantly well-educated people of university age, it can now be argued, Obama would never be president. In fact, it was Bowdoin alumna Meredith Segal '08 who grew her Facebook group, 'Barack Obama for President in 2008,' into a national force of student support. A younger generation is really waiting for this kind of conversation."