Martha Niver has vivid memories of June 16, 1963—the day she graduated from Keuka College.
But most of the memories are centered around baccalaureate, held prior to commencement. That’s because the speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who traveled to Keuka Park with his wife, Coretta Scott King
Niver, who was “moved by the power and eloquence of Martin Luther King’s speech,” met the civil rights leader and his wife after the service.
“I stood in line and was able to thank Dr. King for coming to Keuka and shake his hand,” she recalled. “He then signed my baccalaureate program with ‘Best Wishes, Martin Luther King.’ I treasure the opportunity I had to listen to one of the best speakers and best leaders of the 20th century.”
College President William S. Litterick invited King to deliver the baccalaureate address and receive an honorary degree. However, there were some supporters of the College who questioned the wisdom of inviting a speaker who was controversial due to his passive civil resistance of authorities in Alabama and other parts of the South.
In a July 23, 1963 letter to King, Litterick wrote: “As you can well imagine, there was no unanimous opinion among students, faculty or trustees supporting our invitation to you and Mrs. King. There was opposition.”
King faced opposition on a daily basis while leading a movement that achieved historic reforms, and his pursuit of a color-blind society cost him his freedom on numerous occasions.
Two months before his speech at Keuka College, King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala. While incarcerated, he penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, a turning point in the war to end desegregation in the South.
“There was talk that local law enforcement had suggested we call off his attendance at the ceremony and I remember talk of boycotting graduation if the College agreed,” said Lynda Seeger Flanger, a member of Keuka’s Class of 1963. “There was a sense of excitement and a little fear around campus the week of finals as the ceremonies approached. Somehow, it seemed even more important than job hunting or what we were doing next.”
Interviewed for a 2004 story on King’s visit, the late Professor Emeritus of Biology Jim White said he couldn’t recall any dissension in the faculty ranks.
“There was a lot of concern for his safety,” said White. “Police were everywhere; on campus and along the route to the College.”
“We heard lots of stories – about how the State Police were lining the road to Keuka from Penn Yan to assure safety and how there might be disruption on campus,” said Marilyn Baader, a 1963 Keuka graduate.
There were no incidents that day, and in the weeks following, it became clear King’s words were enough to change the minds of those who opposed his visit to Keuka College.
Wrote Litterick: “Your eloquence, your clear, sincere and forthright expression of views, your quiet, unreserved understatement, which was very powerful, all contributed to the changing of the minds of many of those who had opposed our invitation. Every single member of the Board who was in opposition has written to me or expressed to me verbally his complete change of heart after hearing you.”
Due to a tight schedule, King could not attend commencement and so, in a break of Keuka tradition, received his honorary degree at baccalaureate. Nonetheless, he was impressed by what he saw on campus.
In a July 3 letter to Litterick, King wrote: “Mrs. King and I enjoyed every minute of our visit. We only regret that a terribly crowded schedule made it impossible for us to spend more time on such a beautiful campus.”
King was humbled that the College selected him to receive an honorary degree.
“…my thanks to you and the trustees of Keuka College for bestowing upon me the Doctor of Letters degree, I will always be indebted to you for this great honor. I only hope that my work will prove worthy of such confidence and support.”
History recorded that it did.