On February 20, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., then a 28-year-old Baptist minister, spoke to Peddie students in Ayer Memorial Chapel 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.
A look back from alumni 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 afterward 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.
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.