September 22, 2014

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When MLK came to Oberlin

OBERLIN — Shirley R. Johnson will never forget the Feb. 7, 1957, visit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Oberlin College.

The young mother got her 4-year-old daughter, Emily, ready for a noontime speech at Finney Chapel and an overflow crowd packed the chapel.

It was early in the civil rights leader’s career, but even Emily knew she was seeing something historic.

“She went up to him and got his autograph,” Johnson recalled.

King was “his usual moving self” during the speech, Johnson said, and her daughter now keeps the autograph as a treasured remembrance at her home in California.

COURTESY OBERLIN COLLEGE
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with Oberlin College President Robert Kenneth Carr when King visited the college in 1965 to give the commencement speech.

Martin Luther King Jr. in Oberlin

Feb. 7, 1957
Finney Chapel, noontime speech — “In the struggle for human rights and justice, Negros will make a mistake if they become bitter and indulge in hate campaigns.”
First Church, evening speech — “The non-violent Negro is seeking to create the beloved community. He directs his attack on the forces of evil rather than on individuals. The tensions are not between the races, but between the forces of justice and injustice; between the forces of light and darkness.”

Nov. 14, 1963
Finney Chapel — King gets the flu but comes to Oberlin anyway, giving a short speech and receiving a standing ovation.

Oct. 22, 1964
Finney Chapel — In his second public appearance after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King, who was heard by an estimated 2,500 students, faculty and visitors, tells the crowd: “The time is always right to do what’s right.” “It is true that behavior cannot be legislated, and legislation cannot make you love me, but legislation can restrain you from lynching me, and I think that is kind of important,” King said.

June 14, 1965
Oberlin College commencement — King said that Oberlin College “has probably done more than any other (college) to support the struggle for racial justice.”

Source: The Chronicle archives and Oberlin College archives

King, who is celebrated today with a national holiday, made fairly regular visits to the liberal arts college, which he credited with probably doing “more than any other (college) to support the struggle for racial justice.’’

During that 1957 visit, he spoke about the 381-day Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

The boycott began on Dec. 5, 1955 — four days after the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat for a white man.

At the time, Montgomery had segregation laws that required black riders to sit at the back of the bus, give their seats to white riders and get on the bus through the back door after first paying their fare to the driver, King said.

“You would have seen Negros paying their fare on the front end of a bus, then being made to get off and walk to the rear door to get on their seats; and you would have seen bus drivers pulling off, leaving them standing in the street after paying their fares,” King told the crowd.

But King warned the crowd that blacks should not become bitter and indulge in hate campaigns.

Love, he said, “is the regulating idea in non-violent resistance to injustice. You can love the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed itself.”

“Negros did not hate white people because of segregation; that they were not out to defeat white people or humiliate them — they were protesting the evils of segregation while loving the people who practiced it,” according to coverage of the speech the next day in The Chronicle.

King, then a 27-year-old pastor of his first church, called segregation “a festering sore that debilitates the white man as well as the Negro.”

“The segregator becomes a ‘thing’ instead of a person; therefore when the struggle against segregation is won, it will be a victory for the white man as well as the Negro,” King said in the 1957 appearance.

Later that evening in a speech at First Church in Oberlin, King spoke on the theme of “the new Negro.”

“He tells himself he is ‘somebody;’ that it is not the texture of the skin, but the texture and quality of the soul that matters,” King said.

But King said “the new Negro” would not win an easy victory in “the new South.”

“People who enjoy an advantage — however unfair the advantage may be — do not give it up without a struggle,” King said.

Roland M. Baumann, director of the Oberlin College archives, called King’s 1957 visit a watershed event that “helped to establish a certain bond between black and white members of the community.”

King also gave the June 14, 1965, commencement address at the college and visited the college on Nov. 14, 1963, and on Oct. 22, 1964.

While Oberlin College has records of those four appearances, alumnus Mark R. Arnold of Swampscott, Mass., remembered another visit in 1956, when King dined with him and about nine other students at a circular table in a college dormitory.

“He was very earnest, humble, a very good listener and very thoughtful,” said Arnold, who went on to cover King as a Washington-based reporter for the former Dow Jones newsweekly, the National Observer.

At 6 foot 2, Arnold towered over King, who was about 5 foot 6, but King was a charismatic personality, he said.

Still, Oberlin students didn’t immediately “have a sense he would be a commanding presence on the national and world stage because of his modesty,” Arnold said.

“He was selected by black leaders; he didn’t volunteer for it,” Arnold said. “He was sort of a reluctant warrior — he didn’t set out to be a civil rights leader.”

Arnold, who wrote a column on King published Friday in the Cleveland Jewish News, last interviewed King three years before King was shot by James Earl Ray on a hotel balcony in Memphis in April 1968.

The assassination “absolutely devastated me,” Arnold said. “He was the right man for the right time.” 

Contact Cindy Leise at (440) 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.