In early 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood behind a podium in Memorial Hall on the Bethel College campus and told his listeners they needed to be “maladjusted.”


In early 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood behind a podium in Memorial Hall on the Bethel College campus and told his listeners they needed to be “maladjusted.”

Fifty years later, his friend and co-worker in the Southern Freedom Movement (what the popular press dubbed the Civil Rights Movement), Vincent Harding stood behind the same podium on the same stage to say the message remains the same.

“It’s magnificent to remember 50 years later the presence here of that marvelous human being, Martin Luther King,” Harding said, “but I’m also trying to suggest that remembering him from 50 years ago is not enough in 2010. The best way to stay in touch with that man and his visit here is to keep asking ourselves: ‘Now, where would he be encouraging us to go from here?’ Not just remembering, but walking the way that might carry us to the place he was hoping for and working for and trying to encourage us toward.”

Harding, professor emeritus of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, first met King in 1958 when Harding was part of a small interracial group traveling across the South that stopped in Montgomery, Ala., to visit with King (see sidebar). Harding and his late wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, later moved to Atlanta, where they worked with King. In 1967, Harding drafted a speech that opposed the war in Vietnam and that King delivered in New York exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Harding’s visit — his fourth to Bethel since late 1959 — was part of Bethel College’s annual celebration of the King holiday, which, this year, included marking the 50th anniversary of King’s speech in 1960 as part of the now discontinued Memorial Hall Series.

Harding’s address was the keynote of an evening program that capped a day of remembering the historic occasion of King’s speech, as well as the remarkable recovery of that speech.

Earlier in the day, an overflow crowd filled both the seats and the stage of Krehbiel Auditorium on campus to listen to the speech played in its entirety. As Sondra Bandy Koontz, Bethel vice president of advancement, introduced the speech, she recalled that when planning began months ago for the celebration on Jan. 18, 2010, she had gone to the Mennonite Library and Archives to get a recording or transcript of the speech, only to find that as far as the archivists knew, none existed.

That discovery was “devastating,” Koontz said. “The speech was what we had planned to build the whole day around.” So Koontz had Director of Alumni Relations Dave Linscheid send an e-mail appeal to alumni asking for any memories of the speech. That prompted Randy Harmison, a Bethel graduate now living in rural eastern Kansas, to call Koontz and say he had taped that speech on his reel-to-reel recorder and he was pretty sure he still had it - was she interested?

“I didn’t know whether to shout, ‘That’s impossible!’ or ‘That’s incredible!’” Koontz said.

“There’s a lot to be said for ignorance,” Harmison noted later during a panel of Bethel alumni remembering their associations with King and the Southern Freedom Movement. “I was unaware of ’intellectual property rights’ when I recorded the speech, or I might not have done it.”

In addition, the tape moved with Harmison and his wife to Kansas City and Rochester, Minn., before ending up in an unheated and unventilated storage shed near Erie, where it sat in a box for more than 25 years — and still survived intact enough for professionals to recover it to CD, allowing an enthralled crowd of 400-plus to listen to all 45 minutes of it.

In that speech, King challenged his listeners to resist the temptation to go along with the status quo and allow “what is, to be” — he challenged them to be, in modern psychological parlance, “maladjusted.”

“I’m proud to be maladjusted,” King said. “I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. I call upon men and women all over our nation, and over the world, for that matter, to be maladjusted.”

Harding returned to that theme in his own speech during the evening program, which also included songs by the Newton Community Children’s Choir and an excerpt of the recorded King speech.

“The last part of the Bethel speech — in his wonderful way, he was challenging us to be maladjusted,” Harding said. “We want to be adjusted to, in step with, the world. But can you really be a Christian and be ‘adjusted’ all the time? Was Jesus ‘adjusted’?”

Harding concluded his remarks by asking: “What do we need to be maladjusted to in 2010?”

Among the answers, he suggested, are “to living in fear of terrorists. Fear will destroy us unless we mal-adjust ourselves to that. We will destroy our nation and our world unless some of us become maladjusted to that militaristic view of dealing with conflict.”

We need to be maladjusted, he said, “(to) the deepening re-segregation of the schools, not in Birmingham but in New York, Wichita, Chicago, Detroit, based not only on race but also class — to the terrible way we’ve come to live separated from each other. We need to be maladjusted to our disrespect for and destruction of the environment for economic gain. We are killing the source of our life. We need to be maladjusted to the fear of our sexuality and that of others, especially when it doesn’t fit our narrow understanding of what ’natural’ is. ... We need to be maladjusted to millions of homeless people on our streets.”

He opened the question to the audience, receiving such answers as: “to the fear of immigration, and to inhumane [immigration] policies”; “to capital punishment”; “to Christians who make it about prosperity and being American, not about what Christ stood for”; and “to the idea that we can learn anything about reality from television.”

“What must we change in order to be maladjusted?” Harding said. “What can we change that we’ve never changed before or try what we’ve never tried before? Martin King offers us a magnificent example - reminding us not to build monuments to his name but to carry out the work of building a better world.”

Note: On Jan. 21, 2010, exactly 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Memorial Hall at Bethel College, Rachel Pannabecker, a member of Bethel’s 125th Anniversary Committee and the subcommittee in charge of planning the King Day celebration, delivered a CD and transcript of the speech to the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel, where they will remain permanently for research purposes.