April 3, 2018 — Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. While King is often remembered for his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or the Selma to Montgomery March, Jesuits recall three separate times where the great civil rights leader graced their universities.
On October 12, 1964 — two days before winning the Nobel Prize — King gave a speech at Saint Louis University. "While the law can't change the hearts of men, it does change the habits. And, in time, habits change attitudes," King told an audience of nearly 4,000 students, faculty, staff and community members.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Saint Louis University.
Jesuit Father Paul Reinert, SLU’s president from 1949 to 1974, had advocated for the admission of African-American students and was committed to keeping the university in the city during a time when many urban institutions moved to the suburbs as part of the "white flight."
Following King's speech at SLU, Fr. Reinert wrote a note, which ran in the university newspaper, to the community for the generous welcome it gave King. He wrote that King told him he'd “rarely appeared before an audience which accorded him the warm hospitality and thoughtful attention” the students gave him.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference at SLU in 1964. (SLU Libraries Digital Collections)
Betty Patton, an alumna and one of the few black students attending SLU at the time, said she left the speech feeling as if she "could move mountains."
On September 22, 1965, King addressed approximately 500 people at Saint Peter’s College during the Michaelmas Convocation, an annual celebration honoring student and faculty. King was invited to speak by the board of trustees, with the impetus coming from Jesuit Father Victor Yanitelli, president of the college.
During his visit, King was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws and Letters degree, the only Jesuit school to award King an honorary doctorate.
After receiving the honorary degree, King spoke on the evils of inequality and how segregation was in opposition of democracy. He talked about how all men were created equally by God but were still not treated as such. While legislative changes were an important component for civil rights, they could not change people’s minds about race. Despite this, he was hopeful for the future.
From left: Fr. Victor Yanitelli, SJ, president of Saint Peter's; Martin Luther King Jr.; and Fr. Thomas Wassmer, SJ.
“Although some will be scarred, lose jobs and be called bad names, our problems will be solved. We shall overcome,” King said. He underscored his speech by reaffirming the need to combat these social evils through non-violent measures.
The Jesuits of Saint Peter’s recognized the significance of
what King was doing and wanted to stand with him in support of his cause.
Jesuit Father Edmund G. Ryan, academic dean at Saint Peter’s, wrote a letter in
which he praised King’s spiritual principles. In his conclusion he stated, “I
have taken a position in this case and am quite proud of it and believe that it
is according to the best traditions of Saint Peter’s College, the Jesuit Order,
and the Roman Catholic Church.”
On October 26, 1967, King gave a speech titled “The Future of Integration” at Saint Joseph’s University, telling the crowd of 3,400 students, faculty and community members, “I’m in the heart-changing business.”
Invited by student government leaders, King spoke for about 50 minutes and addressed the pressing issues of the day, including racial and economic injustice, the Vietnam War, the future of integration, the importance of enforcing civil rights legislation and non-violent resistance.
Near the end of his speech, King called for unity. “I do want to mention finally that if we are to move on in the days ahead and bring into being a truly integrated society, we must recognize that our destinies are tied together,” he said. “The black man must recognize that his destiny is tied up with the destiny of the white man, and the white man must recognize that his destiny is tied up with the destiny of the black man.”
Less than six months after his speech at Saint Joseph’s University, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to address striking sanitation workers. He was 39 years old.