Nearly sixty years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to Peddie students in the Ayer Memorial Chapel, the Peddie community gathered on Founders Day to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King.
On February 20, 1957, King, then a 28-year-old Baptist minister, spoke to Peddie about race relations in the United States. One of the first African-Americans ever to speak at the school, King addressed the crowd without a script or notes, and spoke of a “real crisis” precipitated by southern resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation.
“There comes a time when people grow tired of being stepped on by the iron feet of oppressors and the struggle will continue until the oppressed people are free,” he said.
In early 1957, in the wake of the months-long Montgomery bus boycott, King was emerging as a national figure in the civil rights movement. That same week, Time magazine featured King on their cover.
Just 41 days before his visit, terrorists bombed four black churches and the homes of bus boycott leaders and ministers in Montgomery. A dozen sticks of smoldering dynamite left on the porch of King’s home failed to explode. Despite this violent response to the bus boycott, King kept his appointment at Peddie, and spoke to the assembled school about non-violent social resistance.
“This non-violence is based on a faith in the future, a faith that believes that the universe is on the side of the forces of justice,” said King.
Guest speakers Morton Goldfein ’59, Arthur E. Brown, M.D. ’63 and the Honorable David B. Mitchell ’63 reflected on King’s visit to Peddie during the Founders Day ceremony on February 17.
Mitchell was 11-years-old in 1957, and had only arrived at Peddie two weeks before King’s visit. He was one of two African-American students on campus.
Mitchell remembered: “Dr. King said those years ago in this Chapel, the enemy is not individuals and their specific evil deeds. You must challenge injustice whenever and wherever it’s presented. You must do so with love for your fellow human beings. And you must do so nonviolently.”
A second presentation took place on Monday, February 20, the exact anniversary of King’s address, when Kenton Kirby ’99, Fernando Perez ’01 and Dar Vanderbeck ’04 honored King at Chapel and spoke about their journeys
English teacher Pat Clements, who organized the event, said that by honoring King on Founders Day, the school “transferred the significance of that event to a fresh generation of Peddie students.”
A look back from those who were there ...
Michael Horowitz ’58
I had heard of Martin Luther King Jr. before he came to Peddie, but at the time I thought he was just a young Baptist preacher coming to a then Baptist school. I was not expecting him to have the presence that he had.
As co-editor of the Peddie News, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. King that day. There was a kind of aura around him. Even back then, you felt that you were meeting and listening to someone who was going to leave his mark. I was taken with King’s sincerity and strength. He was very serious for a 28-year-old. I was amazed that he was only 11 years older than I was. Everything that happened afterwards I could understand having listened to him.
What King said that day was powerful. He opened my eyes to the severity of issues going on around the country. Back then, we did not think about prejudice at all. Until I became a reporter, I did not realize how society was not as together as I assumed it was.
Of all the people I have interviewed over the years … Nixon, Humphrey, Kissinger … King remains one of my fondest memories. Invariably every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wind up telling the story of when I interviewed him at Peddie. If I could interview King today, I would ask him, “What would you suggest we do to get closer to a kind of world that you imagined?”
Richard Turner ’60
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Peddie, we all knew it was a special occasion, but I doubt that many of us realized just how special it was. I had no idea at the time just how great a person he would become.
Dr. King’s words to us made a big impression on me because, in my mind at the time, blacks were not any different from whites. I was 16, and living and going to school in the North. I had black classmates before Peddie, and at Peddie, and they were well respected. I think we were somewhat aware of the problems blacks were having in the South as it was in the news, but it did not seem to affect us being in New Jersey. I did not realize until he spoke just how oppressed blacks were in the South. King made it clear that my impressions were nowhere near reality, and that was the message I walked away with that day.
If King were here today, I would say “thank you” for all he did for humanity.
There comes a time when people grow tired of being stepped on by the iron feet of oppressors and the struggle will continue until the oppressed people are free. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Enrique Sabal ’61
I had never heard of Martin Luther King Jr. before his visit to Peddie. I arrived at the school in 1955, an 11-year-old with no knowledge of the English language.
By the time Dr. King gave his lecture at the Ayer Memorial Chapel, I was fluent in English and so I was able to grasp his amazing magnetism and virtuosity with words, which he said with an obvious display of force and passion. At the same time, I did not fully comprehend the problems he was talking about in his speech. On the one hand, we did not have racial problems in my native country of Venezuela. Moreover, the issues he spoke about did not affect the everyday life of a not yet 13-year-old student at a prep school in a Northern state.
King’s ability with words had an impact on me and made me wish that over time I could acquire his eloquence. I think it set the foundation for me to earn first place in the 1961 extemporaneous speaking contest, coached by the unforgettable Harold Van Kirk.
If King were here today, I would congratulate him for his vision and philosophy of human and constitutional rights for people of all races. It is markedly applicable to Venezuela today, not because of racial intolerance, but because of the severe and brutal constraints of our citizen’s constitutional rights to free political thought and action. Venezuelans are “growing tired of being stepped on by the iron feet of oppressors, and a struggle will continue until oppressed people are free.” Today, all around the world, there is still a need to further understand and live by King’s philosophy and vision.