By Taki S. Raton
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article by Taki Raton on this little known Black historical fact is a good time to launch a new section by your Community Journal. We call it, “As Quiet As It’s Kept!” This section, which will appear from time to time, will focus on little known Black historical facts that our people don’t know, get little, if any, attention by the mainstream press or our education system; and goes beyond the usual, well known and “safe” Black historical facts and figures celebrated each year during Black History Month (February). The section will be a reminder that Black history wasn’t made in the vaccum of one month, but was–as is–24/7 and 365.
Saturday, June 14, 2014 was a highly significant date in both the annals of civil rights and of a modest college campus in Springfield, Massachusetts.
It is virtually an untold story rarely researched or scripted by the pens of writers and historians. In the words of Martin Dobrow of the Atlantic, it is, “The untold story of a government plot, a maverick college president, and the most important figure of the civil right era.”
Fifty years ago on June 14, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King was invited by the then Springfield College president, Glenn Olds, to receive an honorary degree and deliver the keynote commencement address to the graduating class.
According to Dobrow in his article entitled, “How the FBI Tried to Block Martin Luther King’s Commencement Speech,” Springfield College on March 24, 1964 sent a letter to King to share logistical details of the graduation day programming and requested of him a “glossy photograph” and a bio.
And as a brief aside most appropriately included in Dobrow, it is additionally documented that their “one and only meeting lasting barely a minute” encounter on March 26, 1964 between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X during their travels as they both came to Washington to observe the beginning of the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act.
It was merely and only what we call in the media a “photo op” moment – they came together, shook hands and smiled for the camera. And as quoted by Dobrow, Malcolm said jokingly to King as they parted: “Now you’re going to get investigated.”
But as noted in the Atlantic – the primary source for this particular treatment – investigations into King as of March 1964 were well underway. The then Attorney General Robert Kennedy had approved FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s request a year earlier in October 1963 to sanction the “extraordinary” wiretapping, by his own government, of King’s home, office, and hotel rooms where he stayed.
Writes Dobrow, Hoover was gathering data on the civil rights leader’s alleged association with communist and later on his sexual life.
In this attempt to defame King’s character, Hoover and his team endeavored to accumulate trumped up “highlights” which they leaked to the press, to the President, and even to Pope Paul VI. This effort even found its way to this small campus in Western Massachusetts, Springfield College, where Dobrow describes the campus – per quoting – as “sort of an apple pie kind of place” and the Springfield class of 1964 as having a “Forest Gump-like connection” with U.S. history.” Details the Atlantic writer:
“These students, at the tail end of the so-called ‘Silent Generation,’ were less inclined to question authority or conventional wisdom than their younger siblings would alter be.
“They also chosen to attend Springfield College, an old YMCA school, known as the birthplace of basketball and best regarded at the time for producing wholesome teachers of physical education.”
Olds interest with and connection to King are further inspired by his offering the Springfield campus as a site for Peach Corps training. Marking the 75 anniversary of the college in 1960, the institution’s president invited as speakers such renowned pacifists as Aldous Huxley, Margaret Mead, and Norman Cousins.
Thus, concludes the Atlantic posting, it was “no real surprise” that Olds would select Martin Luther King as a commencement speaker in 1964. Noting Dobrow’s timeline, efforts to block King’s commencement participation was already underway just days following King’s invitational acceptance in March.
The Bureau asked Massachusetts Senator Leverette Saltonstall, a “corporator” of Springfield College, “to lean on Olds to ‘uninvite’ King,” based on the “damming details from the wiretap.”
Saltonstall met with Olds on April 7 to discuss the “FBI’s dirt on King.” Saltonstall also asked the Bureau if Cartha “Deke” DeLoach could also meet with Olds. As recorded in Dobrow, this meeting took place at the FBI office on April 8 at 4 p.m. According to reports, Olds at this meeting was “very shocked” by the information provided by Saltonstall who suggested that King be “prevented” from making the commencement address at Springfield College.
However, it was Olds’ position at the meeting with DeLoach that, “It would be impossible to ‘uninvite’ King to make the appearance at the commencement.”
The college president did receive support form his own campus administration in the Atlantic account. In a typed April 15 memo from Springfield College’s Director of Public Information, George D. Wood, Jr. addressed to Olds and cc’d to four other administrators, it was positioned that in the light of current national interest, not to accord the honorary degree to King, “could result in much unfavorable criticism of the College, not only from various minority groups, but from many other groups and factions across the land.”
Two days later on April 17, the front-page headline of the Springfield student newspaper bannered: “World Famous Civil Rights Leader to Speak at June Commencement,” and in the words of Dobrow, Martin Luther King was, “signed, sealed, and all but delivered to present the commencement address on June 14, 1964.
But King up and got himself arrested as a result of a protest demonstration in St. Augustine, Florida on June 11, four days before he was to appear on the commencement stage in Massachusetts.
As the filibuster for the Civil Rights Act continued in Washington, the Atlantic reports that King needed a cause, “that would dramatize injustice and the perils of segregation.”
There was a strong Ku Klux Klan presence in St. Augustine and documented incidents of violent and even murderous acts against area civil rights workers. When King came down to St. Augustine to protest against segregation as posted in the Atlantic, he was moved from place to place for his own protection.
On May 28, the address of a cottage that had been rented for him was printed in the local paper. That night, the cottage was blasted with gunfire although King was not there.
At a press conference on June 5, King is quoted as saying: “We have worked in some difficult communities, but we have never worked in one as lawless as this.” He also wired President Johnson to request federal protection noting that, “All semblance of law and order has broken down in St. Augustine.”
On June 11 – the hottest day of the year according to published records, King was arrested along with 16 others when he attempted to order food at the whites-only Monson Motor Lodge. On June 12, King was indicted on charges to include violating Florida’s “unwanted guest law” and was “whisked away” in a highway patrol car to the Dual County Jail 40 miles north of Jacksonville, perhaps – as suggested – for his own safety.
More than 1,000 miles north, the commencement at Springfield College was scheduled for the next day. But King was still locked up on Saturday, June 13. Glenn Olds, it is reported, contacted St. Augustine Mayor Joseph Shelley and “pleaded with him for King’s release.”
Olds even “snapped” at Shelley threatening to send college trustee Julian Sprague down to Florida in a private plane to have King record the graduation speech from behind bars. “We will broadcast King’s commencement address, not only to our students, but you will have a real national audience. This will give you some real visibility. You’re holding King because he sat at a lunch counter …in America!”
King was released from jail on a $900 bond on June 13. On Sunday, June 14 along with Coretta Scott King and SCLC aid Bernard Lee, he landed at Bradley Air Field.
They were greeted by education professor Robert Markarian who drove them to Springfield. They arrived on campus where King put on his academic regalia in preparation for his commencement address.
Inside the packed graduation hall, King was introduced by Springfield College President Glenn Olds and then spoke for 30 minutes. In his opening remarks, he thanked Olds, complimented the college and referenced his experiences in Florida:
“I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here this afternoon. I must confess that I felt about this time yesterday afternoon that I wouldn’t be here.”
Cites Dobrow, he encouraged students to “cultivate a world perspective” and to implore them to consider “standing up with determination” when encountering injustice and “resisting it with all of one’s might.”
King went on to receive an honorary degree at Yale the next day.
Initially known at its 1885 opening as the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School, Springfield is now a School of Human Services. The main campus remains in Springfield with 9 satellite campuses located in Boston, Charleston, North Carolina; Houston, Texas; Manchester, New Hampshire; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Johnsbury, Vermont; Tampa, Florida; Southern California, and Wilmington, Delaware.
All campuses offer both an undergraduate and graduate degrees in Human Services. Milwaukee’s Springfield campus is located at 744 North 4th Street, Suite 300. Those locally interested in learning more about admission information and degree requirements are urged to call the Milwaukee campus at (414) 276-2300.