BIDDEFORD, Maine — According to media reports from the time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a packed Biddeford gymnasium that “the most potent weapon for the oppressed is nonviolent action.”
“We must get rid of the idea of superior and inferior races,” the famed civil rights leader reportedly told his first Maine audience. “There is no evidence of any race being superior, yet in spite of this, the idea still exists. Certain people even use the Bible to justify this idea.
“The Negro must work hard to solve this problem,” King went on. “Nonviolence through the courts and Legislature are the methods to be used. More may have to suffer, be jailed, lose jobs, endure physical violence, even death before we reach our goal.”
Those remarks, delivered as part of a historic — but often forgotten — address at what was then St. Francis College, came on May 7, 1964, about eight months after his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and less than five months before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Beginning in January, University of New England will commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s visit to what is now the school’s Biddeford campus with a series of events titled “The Struggle Continues.”
The 1964 event reportedly attracted coverage by Time and Newsweek magazines, as well as major television networks, bringing the national spotlight and still growing civil rights movement to a little-known community in the northeasternmost corner of the country.
“At that time, I believe there had been very little active, on-site involvement in Maine. It was still a little early for [the civil rights movement] to have reached Maine with any great impact,” said David DeTurk, who helped organize the visit for St. Francis College, in a student documentary about the event.
“He was very calm, and obviously eloquent, as we all know. He was not, in any sense of the word, a rabble rouser in terms of someone you would think of as screaming and hollering and carrying on. No, no, no. Not at all,” DeTurk continued. “The rousing part of Martin Luther King was in what he stood for, what he exemplified, what he said and what he believed.”
King reminded Mainers that — although they were geographically distanced from such turmoil as the riots over racial integration of southern universities in the early ’60s — they couldn’t ignore racism and segregation.
“Segregation is on its death bed,” King told the St. Francis audience, according to press reports from the time. “It is still here, though, and it is hidden in the North. If democracy is to live, segregation must die.”
King’s Biddeford appearance occurred nearly four years before he was tragically assassinated by a gunman in Memphis, Tenn.
University of New England took shape nearly 35 years ago out of the merger of St. Francis College with the newly formed New England College of Osteopathic Medicine. Today, the university also has a Portland campus at what was formerly Westbrook College.
The commemorative series will include an event on Jan. 20 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — in Leonard Hall in Biddeford, where a permanent “I Have a Dream” photography exhibit will be unveiled and short student documentary about King’s visit will be shown.
In that documentary, DeTurk, who helped organize St. Francis’ second annual symposium on civil rights in 1964, described calling the famous speaker at home.
“We got the telephone number from information,” DeTurk recalled. “So I was on the telephone waiting, and the next thing I heard was that voice — that is memorable. That deep voice, ‘Hello, this is Dr. King.’ At which point, I think I was thunderstruck and speechless and probably hesitated. He must’ve wondered if the connection had gone or whatever, but finally, I got enough [composure] back to say, ‘Dr. King, this is David DeTurk from St. Francis College in Biddeford, Maine.’
“I then explained to him what we were doing and what we were putting together and, on behalf of the college and ourselves, asked him if he would be willing or interested in coming up and participating in the symposium,” he continued. “There was a pause on his end as he thought about that for a second, and he came back and said, ‘Yes I would — I’ve never spoken in Maine.’”
The 1964 symposium attracted other nationally known activists such as Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Roy Wilkins, a longtime NAACP leader.
Other UNE events slated to mark the 50th anniversary of the symposium include a Jan. 22 address in Biddeford by former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial on wealth inequality, as well as a Jan. 29 speech in Portland by Starla Blanks from the Atlanta-based Morehouse School of Medicine on health care access for the poor.
The university also is hosting an essay contest with a $4,000 UNE scholarship prize for high school students on the subject of civil rights advancements in the last 50 years.