Revisiting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 Commencement Speech at Antioch College
Almost 50 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Yellow Springs and Antioch College to address the graduates at his wife Coretta’s alma mater. WYSO News was there to cover the event, and this tape is one of the most significant recordings in the WYSO Archives.
The year prior, 1964, had been a difficult one for race relations in Yellow Springs. The long stand-off between Lewis Gegner, a local barber who refused to cut Black men’s hair and civil rights activists in the village had ended with a chaotic demonstration. Later that summer, the community joined the nation in mourning the murders of Congress of Racial Equality members James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. But in July the Civil Rights Act had been passed and signed into law. America was changing, but slowly.
In the early months of 1965, events in Selma, Alabama pushed the cause of freedom ever forward. Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined with John Lewis and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and local voting rights activists in Dallas County, Alabama, in strategizing demonstrations against the rampant disenfranchisement of Blacks in the deep South.
On March 7th, demonstrators led by John Lewis and SCLC’s Hosea Williams, planned to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol, to petition then Governor George Wallace directly. The peaceful protestors were met with armed resistance on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as their route crossed the Alabama River, just outside of Selma. The violence they met, broadcast on the evening news for all to see, horrified the nation. The United States had yet to ensure equality and freedom for all of its citizens.
That day is known as “Bloody Sunday,” and it spurred President Johnson to act. Later, in a March 25th speech, Dr. King said that “… Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, he said, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.”
On August 6th of that year, with Martin Luther King and other activists looking on, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
After these hard won civil rights victories, Dr. King’s vision began turning to the wider world, and his Antioch speech is an early reflection of this new outlook. Antioch College history Professor Kevin McGruder shares his thoughts on this shift, and the importance of Dr. King’s message to the Antioch class of 1965:
"A fair amount of the speech focuses on things he’s talked about in other places, poverty, civil rights, but he is particularly giving emphasis to an international viewpoint and what’s really interesting about that is this is June of 1965, and a lot of times when people talk about Martin Luther King and his viewpoints, they really don’t credit him looking worldwide until 1967 when he gives a speech at Riverside Church denouncing the Vietnam War.
But this speech makes clear that that didn’t come from nowhere. He was already thinking about that; he talks about Vietnam in this speech and talks about the futility of militarism. And when we look at where that’s coming from, some mark that broadening of his vision into the international world to his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1964, and so about six months later he’s in Yellow Springs at Antioch looking at the world.
For us now, that speech is remarkably prophetic.A lot of times when people talk about Martin Luther King and his prophetic voice, and I think they almost use it as a kind of literary flourish or something like that, but there really is a way that he sees the future that most others don’t even then or now.
What’s interesting about this speech, too, he talks about these things and he doesn’t say this is your charge to the students but that seems to be what he’s implying, you are going out into the world, it’s an international world, and he talks about the great World House that we have inherited and we must figure out a way to live together and in 1965 he’s saying it. In other places he really uses the concept of Beloved Community, and I think when people hear that they kind of think oh, isn’t that nice, but what he really means is that there’s work that is done to create a Beloved Community, caring for each other, not allowing someone to live in need when people have things that that person can benefit from, you know, whether it’s individual or group by group. And so I think when people heard that and hear it now, the fact that they’re saying that’s his dream, it’s almost like by and by it’ll happen, but when we get to his core message, we have to do things to make it happen, and so when we look at the Antioch speech, that’s really what he’s getting at."
Martin Luther King once said that music was the soul of the civil rights movement. The songs you hear in the special were performed by the Freedom Singers, a quartet formed in Albany, Georgia in 1962. They worked closely with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, singing the soundtrack of the movement.
This program was made possible by grants to WYSO from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Humanities Council.
Major funding for Rediscovered Radio is provided by the Ohio Humanities Council and the Greene County Public Library. The WYSO digital audio archives will open for public listening in 2015.