The Keuka College community commemorated Black History Month Tuesday by taking a page from its own history book.
Hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and members of the public filled the College’s Norton Chapel to hear a recording of the baccalaureate address delivered by Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on June 16, 1963.
A recording of the address, long thought lost to the ages, was returned to the College by a former employee last fall and digitally transferred.
“To know that a man of his stature was here, on the Keuka College campus 55 years ago, and his words can still be as powerful today as they were then, it gives me hope for my future children,” said Jordan Porter-Lemon ’18, a management major from Rochester. “I absolutely believe in Martin Luther King’s message, and his speech resonated with me and it gave me a better direction in which to take my life.”
The address was broadcast twice – once early in the day for students, and a second time at 6:30 p.m. for which the public was invited.
“It was a phenomenal speech, he is a great spokesperson, and I believe it was like a guideline for growing up,” said Jay Grugnale ’18.
“I was really touched,” said Nahalla West ’20, citing a passage that referenced the parable of the Good Samaritan. “I wasn’t sure where it was going when he started talking about the Jericho Road but then – it was really mind-opening.”
Speaking at the evening broadcast was Dr. James H. Evans, Robert K. Davies Professor of Systematic Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
Dr. Evans said King’s words continue to resonate.
“On April 4 of this year, we will observe the 50th anniversary of the murder,” said Dr. Evans, who, as a child, heard Dr. King preach in Detroit in 1963. “Fully two generations of Americans know only what they see in photographs or read in books, or hear in recordings like this one.”
Still, after all those years, the message remains relevant, he said.
“What we can take from the speech today is, what does it mean to say in light of the despair and the hurt and the panic we see across the nation and around the world, what does it mean to say that we shall overcome?”
Also speaking at the evening event was former Keuka College trustee Don Wertman, a longtime Keuka College supporter and champion of the College’s continuing commitment to civil rights and social change, and College President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera, who reflected on the upcoming anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
“We will soon mark the 50th anniversary of the day Dr. King was taken from the movement he led, the family he loved, and the nation he worked so hard to improve,” said Dr. Díaz-Herrera. “On that day, we will mourn anew. But today, amid the commemorations of Black History Month, let us remember Dr. King as he came to us one spring day 55 years ago.”
College HEOP Counselor the Rev. Robert Hoggard spoke following the midday broadcast, reflecting on the historical and Biblical context of Dr. King’s words and urging students to “live the King legacy.”
“Launch into the world and change everything wrong with it,” he urged the hundreds of students in attendance. “Make a positive impact every day and you will live the King legacy every day.”
Dr. King’s 1963 address came amid a tumultuous period in the Civil Rights movement, bookended by the Birmingham Campaign against segregation in April of that year and the March on Washington in August. Indeed, Dr. King arrived on campus one day following the funeral of fellow activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., an event he mentioned in his 1963 address:
“Before the victory’s won some will have to get scarred up a bit,” Dr. King told the students. “Before the victory’s won maybe some will have to face what the young man whose funeral I attended yesterday afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi, Medgar Evers, faced, and that is physical death. But we shall overcome.”
Among those in attendance Tuesday were several members of the Keuka College Class of 1963, including Marilyn Baader, who said she recalled the thrust of Dr. King’s message more than his specific words.
“What I got out of that talk was, ‘It’s your time to go out in the world and make a difference,’” she said.
The address also drew Geneva resident James Richmond, 86, who was head of the Geneva chapter of the NAACP in 1963 and, as such, got to meet with Dr. King during his visit. He said the Civil Rights leader’s advice to him was, “Set your goal and make your goal.”
Richmond did just that, working his way up at the local Firestone company from repairman to salesman to the second African-American manager of such a firm in New York.
Also in attendance was John Bloomquist who, as a 9-year-old, sat at Dr. King’s knee when Dr. King visited his parents, Milly and Earl “Bud” Bloomquist.
“He sat in our house and talked with us for three hours,” recalled John Bloomquist, who traveled from West Virginia to attend Tuesday’s events. “He was one of the first black American men I ever met.”
The daylong focus on the historic address included a campus roundtable discussion led by College Chaplain Eric Detar and Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs Jamyra Young. The central question: whether there has been sufficient progress in areas of social equality. The answer: Yes and no.
“We’ve certainly made a lot of progress, but on the other hand we’re really failing,” said Jim Wilson of Himrod. “What has struck me in the last couple of years is how fragile everything is.”
Communications major Shakoor Bess ’20 concurred with that “sense of fragility.”
“We’re living in a society where the ‘self’ is prioritized,” he said, citing themes incorporated in the 1963 King address and during Hoggard’s talk. “There are underlying human themes that hinder progress: Themes of tribalism, classism.”