On this week in 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent protest of racial prejudice in America. And during that same year, at the height of the civil rights movement, he delivered the Springfield College commencement speech.  

But the speech almost didn’t happen, for social and political reasons that reflected race relations at the time. Connecting Point’s Dave Fraser brings us the story in this digital extra.   

This story originally aired on February 19, 2018. 


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: On this week in 1964, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent protests of racial prejudice in America.

And during that same year, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he delivered the Springfield College commencement speech. But the speech almost didn’t happen, for social and political reasons that reflected race relations at the time, and Connecting Point’s Dave Fraser brings us the story in this digital extra.

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: In 1964, Springfield College shared a moment in history often overlooked by historians, as Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King visited the College to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class.

Martin Dobrow, Springfield College Professor: Martin Luther King’s visit to Springfield College occurred at a remarkable time in American history. It was right in the sweet spot of the Civil Rights Movement.

This was just a few months out from the March on Washington, the “I Have a Dream: speech, arguably the most famous speech in American history. It was a few months before King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

I think he really arrived here at the absolute apex of his fame.

Dave Fraser: The college was not a very diverse place at the time of Dr. King’s visit, and many were not in favor of having a Civil Rights activist on campus.

Martin Dobrow: There was an effort to get the college president Glenn Olds to renege on this invitation. An effort that came from a number of places, most notably the FBI. There really was an attempt to to discredit King, to limit his influence, that it did extend even to a small campus like Springfield College.

And this became, I think, a real moment of truth for the college president Glenn Olds. He wavered some, but ultimately did the right thing.

In the three days before the commencement, King was in jail in Florida. He had been arrested on June 11th for having the audacity to order food in a whites only establishment, the Monson Motor Lodge. He was in jail on the 11th, the 12th, and the 13th, and it was touch and go as to whether, in fact, he would make it here on the 14th.

But he did.

Dave Fraser: Barry Brooks was a member of the class of 1964. He was thrilled that the end of his four year college career would be highlighted by Dr. King’s speech.

Barry Brooks, Springfield College Class of 1964: Just excitement because he was one of our national heroes, a very special person. And for him to be coming to Springfield, the year that I happened to be graduating, seemed like a big deal.

There wasn’t a lot of diversity on campus in our time. Some, but it seemed like a special gift to us that our favorite person, our hero, was going to be the speaker. And that was a wonderful way to close our career.

Martin Dobrow: Came up to campus, there was a press conference. The graduation itself was in the Old Field House, which was a Quonset hut that has long since been torn down. But, he was introduced by by Glenn Olds, and it was a quite a memorable, memorable speech and a very proud moment, I think, for this institution.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights Activist: Through our scientific and technological changes, we have made of this world a neighborhood. Now through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.

Dave Fraser: Just four short years from the time that Dr. King delivered the commencement speech at Springfield College, he would be assassinated on April 4th, 1968.

Barry Brooks: Tremendous sadness, shock, some anger, because he was our number one hero at the time. And he seemed determined and bound to change things in the country, in terms of how people were treated and some level of equity and fairness.

And to have him taken away like that, by violence, it’s very unsettling and angering. You just…you cry. You’re angry, all the emotions.

Martin Dobrow: I find the Civil Rights Movement to be one of the most hopeful and inspiring periods of American history.

It’s one that I hope can energize young people today to help push for positive change that I think we still need as we evolve to hopefully become what our our founding fathers and great patriots like Dr. King envisioned that we could be.