More than four decades after speaking on campus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message still resonates
Cheryl Ward Yanosy ’70 was one of about 3,000 in attendance when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Marietta College's Ban Johnson Field House in 1967, just a little more than a year before his assassination.
While her recollection of King’s visit has faded a bit over the years, she still considers it one of the most influential moments in her life.
“I can tell you that my family recalls the letter I sent home. My description was ‘Dr. Martin Luther King was a cogent speaker. It was amazing to hear him speak with such passion and conviction to racial inequities and how much more needs to be done,’ ” says Yanosy, who is retired and lives in Shelton, Conn. “His reputation as a civil rights leader was well known. There was little flourish surrounding his coming to Marietta. At that time Marietta was a very insulated campus and while the civil rights movement was well known, the turmoil surrounding the movement was not a factor at Marietta.”
This year marks the 43rd anniversary of when Dr. King spoke at Marietta College. King addressed a standing-room-only crowd in the old Ban Johnson Fieldhouse on March 2, 1967, as part of the Thomas Lecture Series. King was originally scheduled to speak at Marietta in November 1966, but due to inclement weather he was unable to get a flight into the area. Marietta College is looking back at King’s visit as part of Black History Month, which is celebrated each February.
King was an activist and leader of the African-American civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. He is considered by many a human rights icon, and is well known for his efforts that led to the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. national holiday in 1986.
The focus of King’s Marietta speech was on the “Future of Integration.” To listen to Dr. King's speech narrated by Courtney Malone ’11, Maggie Smith ’10, and Huda Hashi ’10—all members of Marietta College's Charles Sumner Harrison Organization—click here.
But he also touched on a hot button topic of the day. According to a Marcolian article, King told the audience that the protests surrounding the unseating of black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY) as being “anti-Constitutional hypocrisy protest.”
Tim Maroney ’68 was a co-editor of The Marcolian and wrote the article on King’s visit.
“Each Jan. 17 I can’t help but to reflect back on the week that Dr. King visited Marietta and how lucky I was to have a front row seat (literally) to history that day,” he says. “Not only was his presence in the city historic, but it was his first public comment about Congress’ failure to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, just a few days before as I recall. I doubt that had I attended any other college that I would have had that opportunity.”
Maroney is also proud of the student newspaper’s “scoop” of The Marietta Times.
“The article we published in The Marcolian that Friday led with the Powell controversy, and described Dr. King’s visit second. The Marietta Times story only focused on the event itself, so we all thought we had scooped them,” Maroney says. “All around a great week to be at Marietta College. Two years later, I found myself working at The Parkersburg News to help pay my Marietta College tuition. I was writing headlines for Associated Press and other wire stories, so it was my dubious distinction to be the one to take the bulletin on Dr. King’s assassination off the old Teletype machine and announce it to the newsroom.”
Maroney says there were some in that newsroom who were not upset by the sad news of King’s death. Yanosy says she never sensed any negative reactions from the College or community in response to King’s presence on campus. The Marietta Times reported that King’s appearance in Marietta “was without incident.” However, the entire Marietta Police Department was either on duty or standing by in case of an emergency.
Leading up to the event, though, there were a number of heated and unflattering Letters to the Editor to both The Times and the Parkersburg News and Parkersburg Sentinel regarding King’s trip to Marietta, which created a heightened sense of security for King’s visit.
Here are excerpts from a couple of those letters:
- “Must be that Marietta has been too quiet to suit the college president up there and some of the other do-gooders who must be giving him some bad advice. So the Marietta College President has decided to get things stirred up, and he’s bringing Martin Luther King to the college to get the people agitated.”
- “Wherever he goes troubles follow. I believe that the officials of Marietta College should know who Martin Luther King really represents. He should not be allowed to visit Marietta College.”
There were also many positive feelings within the region expressed in those same Letters to the Editor:
- “I, personally, do not agree with all of Doctor King’s policies but it is an indisputable fact that he is one of the outstanding personalities of the decade.”
- “Please, no more poison. Let Dr. King come to Marietta or any other place, even Dayton, Ohio, as long as he comes in the name of peace. After all of the evils we face today are because we have not the love for one another. … Thanks to the brave men who had the courage to invite him to Marietta.”
- “(King) must be respected as a man of power, a bulwark of hope between our past complacency as a white majority and the rising tide of hate found among impatient young Negro leaders. We must, at least, listen to him, or we may be forced to hear them.”
Following the assassination of King at the age of 39 on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., then Marietta College President Dr. Frank E. Duddy Jr. said in a statement he released to the College and Marietta community, “His death Thursday at the hand of an assassin who was as cowardly as Dr. King was courageous, has revolted the entire Marietta College community, as it has rational men everywhere. Yet the act has been done, and Marietta College joins all people who mourn the passing of Dr. King.”
Even though it was more than two decades before they were born, the simple fact King appeared on Marietta’s campus is inspirational for some current students.
“Realizing that Martin Luther King once spoke here, has made me dream bigger. More specifically has made me appreciate the privileged opportunity of being in college,” says Dante Sherman ’10 of Cleveland, Ohio. “The fact that Dr. King spoke here allows me to better appreciate my culture and love my historical background.”
For Maggie Smith ’10 of Madison, Wis., King and Nelson Mandela were her first real heroes. “To know that Martin Luther King spoke at Marietta College in 1967 at a time when racial intolerance was accepted as the norm says a lot about Marietta. Having Martin Luther King speak is a testament to the fact that Marietta had an interest in the pursuit of equality. He was one of the greatest civil rights activists to ever live and I personally am honored to attend a school, whose legacy includes such a brilliant, selfless and monumental man such as Martin Luther King.”
While Courtney Malone ’11 of Cleveland, Ohio, wishes the College did more to recognize King’s legacy, she is proud her College took a brave stand during a tumultuous time.
“I think having MLK as a speaker here was an amazing way to show the diverse tone of the College. MLK was not the most well liked person in his day, especially not in rural areas like Marietta,” Malone says. “He was considered controversial and a troublemaker by some but a hero and a leader by many. Marietta College hosting MLK as a speaker shows their affirmation in equality and civil rights for all people of different races. It was also a way of exposing the students to the discrimination and inequality that African Americans faced and challenging them to take a stand.”
For some who attended that day in 1967, the impact has lasted a lifetime.
“I not only consider myself lucky to have seen MLK in person, but I have also used this historic event to promote conversation with my grandson and young nieces and nephews. They do not realize what racial tension existed in the 1950 and 1960s,” Yanosy says. “Today’s youth has an extremely global outlook with the various forms of communication available. In the 1950 and 1960s, communication was extremely limited and even major news events were slow to get to the general population. Note that there were usually only several pay phones on each floor of a dorm and televisions in dorm rooms were extremely rare. The turmoil of racial inequities and the movements intended to break those barriers were ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in many cases. Marietta College had a population of diverse individuals, many of whom came from the northeast. Since segregation and racial tensions were not part of our culture at home, we did not transport them to Marietta.”