By Tanner Jillson
While people often associate Springfield College as the Birthplace of Basketball, it is also linked to one of the greatest activists in American history.
Just ten months since his March on Washington and five months from accepting the Nobel Peace prize, Martin Luther King Jr. would come to Springfield, Mass. looking to inspire a revolution. At the apex of his fame, King was asked by then Springfield College President Glenn Olds to deliver the commencement speech to the college’s 1964 graduating class.
“I regard Martin Luther King’s speech at Springfield College as the greatest day in Springfield College history,” said Martin Dobrow, professor of communications at Springfield College. “The event came at a very intense time in U.S. history. Particularly when you consider the tension of race relations throughout the country.”
Yet, it almost didn’t happen. There was an extreme amount of pushback from a number of people about inviting King to the college, including the F.B.I. Olds dealt with that pressure and followed through with his request, setting the graduation date for June 14.
The resistance to get King to Springfield didn’t stop there. On June 11, three days before he was supposed to address the graduating class, King was arrested in St. Augustine, Fla. for ordering food at a whites-only establishment. He would spend those three days leading up to the graduation in jail.
“According to Glenn Olds, if they had not released Martin Luther King from jail, he was going to send someone down to St. Augustine with a tape recorder and record the speech from the jail,” Dobrow said.
Whether or not this occurred, the fact remains that King was released on bail three days after his arrest and would immediately journey to Springfield.
Robert Markarian, the director of teacher education at Springfield College from 1953 to 1977, spent most of the day with King on the day of commencement. In escorting him to the Field House where commencement would take place, King was spotted by people in the audience. The crowd began a thunderous applause in celebration for his arrival.
“There wasn’t a lot of diversity on campus at the time,” said Barry Brooks, member of the 1964 graduating class in an interview with W.G.B.Y. “There was some (diversity), but it seemed like a special gift to us that our favorite person, our hero was going to be the speaker.”
King was met with a second standing ovation as he approached the podium after Olds introduced him. He began by stating how “delighted” he was to be at the commencement, and with a laugh explained that he was not sure if he was going to make it.
King stated his appreciation for the College and Glen Olds in his opening remarks. “I appreciate all that this college represents for the cultural and humanitarian life of our nation and the world,” he said. “I’m deeply aware of this rich and great tradition.”
During his speech, King spoke of the responsibility people have to take action in a revolution. He made a comparison regarding racial integration to the story of “Rip Van Winkle.”
“Rip Van Winkle slept through a revolution,” King said summarizing the famous short story by Washington Irving. “And a great social revolution is among us... We are challenged with achieving a world perspective... Any nation who decides to live in isolation is sleeping through a revolution.”
King challenged his audience to stay awake, become active, join the revolution, and be a part of change.
Markarian described King’s visit in a typed letter, writing, “Of the 30 commencement addresses at Springfield College which I attended, his is the only one I can remember with any clarity-- a tribute, I think, to his eloquence and timely message.”
King’s message can be related to any time period in American history, and more specifically, it can be used now more than ever. It is our responsibility as members of a bigger and deeper community to stay awake, rather than sleep through yet another revolution.
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood,” King said. “Now through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”
This concept is something that Springfield College holds deep to its heart. Through the humanics philosophy, emphasizing the education of spirit, mind and body, the community can continue King’s message and grow together.