All eyes were on the nation’s capital this summer for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now Kalamazoo will have its own celebration marking the snowy night 50 years ago that King spoke at Western Michigan University, just four months after that historic address in Washington, D.C.
The “50 Years Later: Honoring the Legacy of MLK” program takes place at noon on Monday, Dec. 2, at WMU in the North Ballroom of the Bernhard Center. It will feature a panel discussion as well as audio clips of King's university speech and the question-answer-session that followed.
One person who has a strong recollection of King’s Dec. 18, 1963 visit and how it came about is WMU’s retired vice president of student affairs, Thomas Coyne. At the time, Coyne had been at the university for just over a year in the role of director of alumni relations.
Coyne says King had been brought to campus to provide a voice opposing that of then-Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. Barnett, an ardent segregationist, had spoken at Western earlier that fall at the invitation of the 1963 senior class.
Coyne, who was then adviser to the senior class, says the students had extended the invitation to Barnett without his knowledge and that of then-WMU President James Miller. The class sent letters to 30 prominent individuals in the news, asking them to speak. Only Barnett responded. As Coyne puts it: "They would have invited Attila the Hun if Attila the Hun had been in the leading newspapers at the time."
Miller allowed the visit to proceed, Coyne says, believing that it would be “a teachable moment.” And Coyne says that it was. “They really didn’t understand the segregation and civil rights dispute as well before those invitations went out, as they did after.”
King addressed a crowd of an estimated 2,000 people as part of a lecture symposium sponsored by WMU’s Lee Honors College called “Conscience in America.” He arrived amid two major historical events in the U.S. Only four months earlier, King had delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall. And his appearance at Western came less than a month after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Coyne says a question posed to King about Kennedy’s death and its impact will forever stand out in his mind about that university presentation. Coyne says King's answer was prophetic. King was asked what effect JFK’s death would have on the passage of the Civil Rights bill and on the Civil Rights Movement. Coyne remembers that “King made a point of saying…that he thought it was likely that the (Civil Rights) bill would go ahead and be successful.” Coyne adds that Dr. King went on to say: "That, in fact, President Kennedy might have been more successful after his death than he might have been before.” Coyne says that's what happened after King was assassinated only five years later as “a number of individuals stepped into his footsteps.”
The “50 Years Later: Honoring the Legacy of MLK” program at WMU will feature a panel of students and community members, one of whom was in the audience the night King spoke in Kalamazoo. The panel will be moderated by nationally known newsman and WMU alumnus Ed Gordon who will also give a keynote address. The event is sponsored by Western's Office of Diversity and Inclusion. It is open to the public.