It was 52 years ago this year that Martin Luther King Jr. came to Bowdoin College to speak about the civil rights movement and the importance of ending segregation and discrimination in America.
In the spring of 1964 Bowdoin’s Political Forum, a non-partisan student organization, was planning a series of lectures on civil rights. While the group would typically sponsor lectures by academics, they chose instead to invite black leaders involved in the movement.
“We felt that [we] could make a difference by bringing the most prominent civil rights leaders in America to the college,” Frederick J. Stoddard, one of the Political Forum leaders, said in an article appearing in Bowdoin Magazine in the winter of 1995,
Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the U.S., spoke on May 5 in Pickard Theater.
His speech, titled “Goals and Strategies Necessary in the Achievement of Equal Rights,” addressed the Civil Rights Bill before Congress.
King was scheduled to speak in Pickard the following evening, but publicity for the talk had reached a wide audience, and it was clear Pickard Theater would be too small to accommodate the expected attendance, and another venue was selected.
On May 6, 1964, Stoddard and President Coles introduced the Reverend King to an overflow crowd of about 1,100 people at First Parish Church.
King’s speech made an indelible impact on the audience.
Among those inspired was Wayne Burton, who recalled in a January 2005 article appearing in the Lynn, Mass., Daily Item: “I asked him [after the speech] what all he was saying had to do with me. He said, ‘If your conscience stops at the border of Maine then you are less than who you should be.’ I said I would do what I could to help him.”
The hour-long address was recorded by the Bowdoin radio station WBOR.
The recording was missing for many years, but was discovered by Caroline Moseley, the Bowdoin Library’s processing archivist, who had the tape transferred to CD and transcribed.
As Stoddard recalled in Bowdoin Magazine, the visit by King and Rustin “had a permanent impact on our values, historical sense, and later commitments.”
“Students today may feel less able to contribute to the political process than we did during our time at Bowdoin,” he said. He hopes having the recording of King’s address available to a wide audience will extend its influence.
“Martin Luther King’s and Bayard Rustin’s visit to Bowdoin was a historic event,” he said. “It’s my hope that students today will be inspired by the recording to similarly find ways to invite political activists as well as noted academicians to the Bowdoin campus. An equally important result would be attracting more African-American students to our college.”
Doug Cook is director of news and media relations at Bowdoin College. A version of this piece originally ran on Bowdoin’s website.