Witnessing History

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a preview of his 'I Have a Dream' speech for the campus community

by Michelle Simmons

Dickinson is not in session until Jan. 23, but the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity will honor King's legacy this week with daily posts about his activism. In February, the Popel Shaw Center's 2017 MLK Jr. Symposium and Black History Month programming will focus on the politics of racial respectability in contemporary America.

Two years before the historic March on Washington, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a capacity crowd in the Allison United Methodist Church (UMC). On April 11, King’s sermon, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life,” during chapel service as part of Dickinson’s Representative American Preachers series, thrilled the Tuesday-morning gathering.

“He was a powerful speaker, giving us a preview of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that would follow,” recalls Linda Goodridge Steckley ’63. “I had never experienced such force and passion from the pulpit of Allison Methodist Church, and it was frightening. We were just beginning to sense the turmoil of the civil-rights movement that would change our world and lead ultimately to [Obama’s] historic election.”

What John Cornew ’63 remembers most was the anticipation of the crowd. “The single most important issue on anyone’s mind was civil rights. Everyone who was there was so excited to hear from him,” he says.

According to the April 14, 1961, issue of The Dickinsonian, King told everyone, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools.” He explained the three dimensions of life as length—“a natural and healthy concern with oneself and goals”—breadth—“an outward concern for the welfare of others”—and height—“a reaching for God.”

He continued, “When people have asked how I can persist, I answer, ‘The cause is right, and we have cosmic companionship.’ Thus we can walk and never get weary and this keeps us going.”

King’s determination matched that of Dickinson’s. It had taken nearly two years to bring him to campus. He had been scheduled to appear on Nov. 24, 1959, but was delayed by fog in Atlanta the day before. Between 1959 and 1961, King had become the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Lunch-counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides were in full swing.

“There was a message there that barriers can be broken down, and we are one people,” says Woody Goldberg ’63. “It was before he had broad national and international standing, and it shows how Dickinson really was forward-looking and engaging the world in many ways.”

Jon Steen ’63, who also was the organist at Allison UMC at the time, got to see a side of King that few others would. At the end of the service, Steen joined King, Heber Harper, professor of political science, and James Carson, professor of history, for lunch. “He’d look at you and smile but didn’t say much,” he says. “You really didn’t know what was on his mind.”

‚ÄčThis story was originally published on Dec. 30, 2008.

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Published January 13, 2017