A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood
One of the student leaders responsible for bringing Martin Luther King Jr. to speak on campus in 1967 reflects on his inspirational words and the recent visit of civil rights leader Rep. John R. Lewis.
By James J. Mingle ’68
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, members of the faculty and members of the student body of Saint Joseph’s College, ladies and gentlemen. … how happy I am to be here this afternoon and to be a part of your lecture series. … I can assure you that I am grateful to the students, and I am grateful to all of you for extending the invitation.
With these gracious remarks, Martin Luther King Jr. began his address to the Saint Joseph’s College community on October 26, 1967. An audience of 1,700, including students, faculty, staff, members of the public and the media, gathered in the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse (now the Michael J. Hagan ’85 Arena) that afternoon to hear the words of the renowned Baptist preacher.
Student government leaders Dennis Foreman ’68, Ralph Kates ’69 and I arranged for King’s appearance as the lead speaker in our student-run lecture series, which also featured author Vance Packard, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and automobile-safety advocate Ralph Nader. We hoped that King would view it as an opportunity to come to Philadelphia and to speak at the city’s Jesuit college. We knew students would seize the opportunity to hear King speak about his advocacy and achievements in the civil rights movement.
Little did we know, as a few of us welcomed the down-to-earth King — who arrived by himself without an entourage — that the speech he would give would have great historic significance. Struck down by an assassin’s bullet five months later, the man who stood for nonviolent advocacy was about to give one of his last major addresses.
This past October, when University President Mark C. Reed, Ed.D., announced the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, he said that “among the many leaders, dignitaries and orators who have spoken publicly at Saint Joseph’s, King stands alone in stature and impact.”
As anticipated, the students were receptive to what King said that day, frequently applauding his remarks. We were moved by his vivid account of the injuries and indignities he and his courageous colleagues and supporters suffered along the way at the hands of fellow citizens and the batons of policemen. And we were impressed that their peaceful persistence in pursuing the cause for justice against relentless opposition finally led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In part, King’s 50-minute address, delivered without notes, was an insightful history lesson, as he chronicled the long-enduring struggles of African-Americans to achieve full equality under the law. In a larger sense though, King’s main messages were an artful blend of political advocacy and riveting sermon. Reminding the audience that he was “a clergyman … in the heart-changing business” (greeted by appreciative laughter), he called for the enactment and “vigorous enforcement” of legislation to overcome housing segregation. He voiced the hope that this would eventually “change the habits of people” and, in time, their hearts.
King’s speech was also bold and controversial: One of the few national leaders at the time to assail the war in Vietnam, he called the conflict “unjust and ill-considered.” With the Selective Service stalking us throughout our senior year, his criticism of the war got our close attention.
Reflecting back, I think what King said to us that fall was a “commencement address” of sorts to the Class of 1968. It was not just the import of what he said; his remarks were also inspirational. Stressing that “our destinies are tied together,” he called upon “concerned people of good will” to combat inequality and help transform discord into “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Our class took his compelling messages to heart — messages in sync with the principles of social justice grounded in our Jesuit education — by endeavoring to live purposeful lives in service to our families and communities and country.
Just as King’s address 50 years ago served to inspire us when we were students, Rep. John Lewis recently did the same for today’s SJU students. In his remarks this past April in the Hagan Arena, the civil rights titan, invoking King, enjoined students “to stand up, to speak up and to speak out” when encountering injustices.
It was an honor to have Saint Joseph’s host King in 1967, and I credit the University for commemorating his words of wisdom and hope with a yearlong 50th anniversary celebration. It was an especially fitting conclusion to recognize the Hon. John Lewis, following his moving speech on campus, with the President’s Medal of Excellence for “his immense courage and unwavering dedication to civil rights.”
May the Class of 2018 be equally inspired by the guiding words and exemplary deeds of King and Congressman Lewis.
James Mingle, Saint Joseph’s student body president in 1967-68, retired from Cornell University as general counsel and corporate secretary in 2017.