The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches address the crushing issue of his time: ending racial segregation in America. His “I have a dream” exhortation at the 1963 March on Washington and his foreboding “I’ve been to the mountaintop” sermon at Memphis, just before his 1968 assassination, are the best examples.
But a lesser-known yet still powerful speech by King was made in 1965 in Yellow Springs, a bucolic, progressive village about 65 miles northeast of Cincinnati. It can still be heard today — the public radio station WYSO has it available for streaming on the archive page of the public station’s website, wyso.org.
On June 19, 1965, King gave a commencement address to Antioch College’s 296 graduates, plus some 1,200 others who crowded the outdoor gathering space by the school’s main building. He spoke of American civil-rights issues — he was only three months past the national crisis in Selma, Ala., where racist officials tried to stop a march. And there would be more struggles in the future.
But he was also just six months past accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, so he had a visionary, internationalist view of what awaited a post-segregation America. It was important for him to share it with the next generation at progressive liberal-arts colleges like Ohio’s Antioch and Oberlin, where he gave a similar commencement address during the same year. (King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, attended Antioch but graduated from New England Conservatory.)
Today the Antioch speech sounds incredibly prescient.
“Those of us who live in the 20th-century are privileged to live in one of the most momentous periods in human history,” King begins. “Indeed, we find ourselves standing between two ages, the dying old and the emerging new.
“…We are challenged today more than ever before to develop a world perspective,” he later says. “The world in which we live is geographically one, and we’re challenged to make it one in terms of brotherhood. No one can live alone today; no nation can live in isolation…
“Mankind’s survival is dependent on our ability to solve the problem of racial injustice, solve the problem of poverty, solve the problem of war.”
Recorded on audiotape by WYSO at the time, it sat in its archives for decades until the station received a $100,000 grant from Corporation for Public Broadcasting to digitize its civil-rights-related programs. WYSO finished the King speech in time to first broadcast it on his holiday last year. Because the station is unsure of its rights, however, it is not distributing the speech to other stations or allowing downloads from its Web site.
“In 1965, his worldview was changing and he speaks to it directly in his speech,” says Scott Sanders, Antioch College’s archivist. “Being given an international award affected him greatly in terms of how his struggle should apply internationally. He now began to see civil rights issues, poverty and war as one big thing. Then his outlook becomes global, he speaks directly to ending poverty and ending the (then-escalating) Vietnam War.”
During the speech, King speaks eloquently and hopefully about how science and technology are offering new opportunities to feed and shelter the world’s population. But he warns that technology has also created weapons of mass destruction. As he puts it, “guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere.”
He had a receptive audience at Antioch for this point — there is sustained applause for his call to end the ruinous Vietnam War. But he goes further, in a way predicting the situation the U.S. now finds itself in trying to fight two expensive Mideast wars during an ongoing Great Recession, while voices of extremism rise on our political Right.
“We have inherited a great world house in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterners and Westerners, gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, theists and humanists, Muslims and Hindu…”
A fair amount of King’s speech did address the domestic civil rights movement, including the effort to get congressional approval of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But, considering how much of an issue it still was, King already had a fatalistic attitude about it. He viewed his as a battle already won, and now it was time to broaden his concerns.
“I’m absolutely convinced the system of segregation is on its deathbed today and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists will make the funeral,” he says.
By all accounts, it was a momentous day in Yellow Springs when King spoke. Recalls resident Jalyn Jones Roe, who was 10 at the time: “Everyone in Yellow Springs attended the speech.” (It was also tense. Although it wasn’t made public until the 1970s, the FBI and police were on alert because of an assassination threat from the Ku Klux Klan.)
Roe, whose African-American parents lived across the street from the campus, had gone to the speech with her sister, Gayla. Their mother was a friend of Mrs. King and her sister Edythe Scott, who had graduated from Antioch. In fact, Roe’s parents hosted a reception for the Kings after the speech.
She had an ulterior motive for going.
“The purpose was, I had written a little book about a dog and his travels, and at age 10 I wanted to put a picture of the writer, who was me, on it. My sister snapped the picture there, which cut half of my face off but in the background there is Dr. King speaking.”
Despite that motive, the speech still commanded her attention.
“I remember him saying segregation is dying,” she says. “And I remember saying, ‘Wow!’ That memory came back to me so vividly when November 2008 came along and we were actually electing a black president. What did King see in 1965 that so many of us couldn’t see?”
One thing King didn’t see was Antioch College’s own journey of decline and renewal.
Its parent, Antioch University, shuttered the campus in 2008. A group of supporters bought it back in 2009, though, and just announced a new president, Mark Roosevelt. The college is now recruiting for its first new class, to start in September.