April 4, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of a dubious day. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. King was leader of the civil rights movement, who is memorialized with a national holiday. Wednesday, there were memorial services in areas across the nation to remember the icon.
Newton felt a connection to King, so much so that about 200 people attended memorial services for the slain civil rights leader at First United Presbyterian Church.
Speakers at the memorial service included A.W. Roberson, Trina Camargo, C.V. Bell, Mayor Lile Mason, the Rev. Louis Dale, the Rev. Ralph Milligan, the Rev. W.F. Unruh and the Rev. E.B. Billops.
Part of that connection came from King having spoken at Bethel College a few years before. Jan. 21, 1960, King spoke from the lectern on the stage of Memorial Hall.
Randy Harmison, now a retired engineer, was a student at Bethel College that day. On Jan. 21, 1960, he knew he was about to hear a great speaker. He turned on his tape recorder and created the only record of the speech. A copy of that original recording, and a copy now on compact disc, resides at the Mennonite Historical Library and Archives at Bethel College.
Archivist John Thiessen told The Kansan in 2017 there are not many requests to hear the recording, something he finds a little surprising. He said while the MLA would like to post a copy of the recording online in digital form, the Martin Luther King Jr. Estate holds the copyright — and as such, there is not permission to post the recording. To hear it, one must go to the MLA.
The Newton Kansan sent a reporter to King’s speech, and also was granted an interview after the speech. The story, which appeared in the paper Jan. 22, 1960, does not have with it a byline.
However, it offers a recap of a speech that Thiessen said was ”(King’s) standard speech at the time.” Other speech texts mirror what was delivered during an address that King called an “honor” to give.
Under the headline of “King Hails Supreme Court Ruling,” the Newton Kansan article from Jan. 22, 1960, read as follows:
In discussing the future of integration, Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking Thursday night at Bethel College, said time is the ally of the forces of social stagnation.
But the Baptist minister and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association was confident of the future in which all men will live together “creatively” as brothers, he explained that “the tireless efforts and determined work of dedicated individuals are needed; without it time will be the ally of the forces working for social stagnation.”
Dr. King reviewed the past, and the three stages through which the Negro has passed in America. From 1619-1862 was the period of slavery in which the Negro was not even a legal being. An era of restrict ed emancipation followed from 1962-1954 — in which the Negro was accepted as a legal fact.
With the supreme court decision of May 17, 1954, the Negro entered into the era of constructive integration.
Dr. King felt this had to come about because of the Negroes’ new sense of dignity, the pressure of world opinion, and the conscience of the American people.
Dr. King characterized these three periods as: “The Egypt of slavery, the Wilderness of segregation, and the border of the Promised Land of integration.”
To enter the “Promised Land,” Dr. King discussed the role that must be played by the federal government, the liberals in the North, the liberal and moderate whites in the South, the churches, and the Negro himself.
In an interview Thursday afternoon, Dr. King reviewed the history of the 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, how the Montgomery Improvement Associaton came into being, and the work the association has been doing since the end of the boycott in 1957.
On Dec. 5, 1955, a Negro woman was told she could not sit in the white section of a Montgomery bus, and she was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested. This created a spontaneous response, As word of the incident spread, Negroes refused to ride the buses. By that night, the boycott was 99 percent effective.
A mass meeting was called that night, and the Montgomery Improvement Association was created to lead the boycott and negotiate with the bus company and the city.
Under the leadership of Dr. King, who was 25 years old at the time and had just graduated from Boston University with a doctor’s degree in theology, the association insisted that any victory could only be achieved by non-violent means.
With the success of the boycott, many Negro leaders who previously could not understand the value of non-violence came to see what Dr. King described as “the redemptive power of Love.” This included Dr. King’s father.
The successful end of the boycott in 1957, which allowed Negroes the right to sit anywhere in a bus, eased tension in Montgomery a little. But Dr. King explained that the tension is still greater now than it was before the boycott.
This is because of two factors.
“The Negro is no longer in a mood of staying in his place,” Dr. King said. The issue of school integration is also contributing to the tension.
“We still have our citizens councils and the Klan.” Dr. King said, “who are appealing to the emotions of the lower income bracket, and keeping the moderates afraid to stand up for what they believe.”
Although no longer in the news, the Association is still active. “We are still trying in several ways to break down the barriers,” Dr. King said.
He explained that in the field of recreation the association got a court decision saying it was unconstitutional for the city parks to be segregated. The city retaliated by closing the parks. A situation, Dr. King feels, which will not last.
“In voter registration,” Dr. King said, “we have not been able to get more people registered, but we have been getting more people to seek to register. Only about 10 percent of those who try are registered. Of every 100 we send down, only about 8 or 10 are registered, so that they can say: ‘See we register Negroes.’ ”
Dr. King explained that they have been building up quite a number of complaints to present before the Civil Rights Commission on this matter.
Dr. King came to Newton to speak for one of the Bethel College Memorial Hall series.