In 1965, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters, and he gave Oberlin’s Commencement Address entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” 1965’s Commencement is one of historical significance for Oberlin because of MLK Jr., but he was not the only national leader recognized. Then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk was honored too. It is clearly ironic that Dr. King, who called for peace negotiations and advocated for an end to the Vietnam War, shared the Commencement stage with Secretary of State Rusk, one of the principal drafters and theorists of foreign policy that escalated that tragic war. Less than two years after their joint appearance at Oberlin’s 132nd Commencement, MLK Jr. made his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Stanford University, in which he fully denounced the Vietnam War. In that speech, he stuck to his nonviolent roots and argued that U.S. power should be “harnessed to the service of peace and human beings, not an inhumane power [unleashed] against defenseless people.”
In MLK Jr.’s Commencement speech at Oberlin in 1965, entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” he urged and called on Oberlin graduates to uphold the values of “embracing peace,” “working for peace”, and “opposing the waging of war and killing of other human beings.” Dr. King called on graduates “to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of racial injustice in all its dimensions” and “to get rid of violence, hatred, and war.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rusk’s speech was entirely apolitical. In it, he offered generic advice to graduates entering the professional world and did not address his role in the Vietnam War or student demands that had been placed on him that Commencement Weekend.
The irony of this pairing was not only evident in the content of their remarks, but in the reception they received from students. MLK Jr. made multiple appearances in Oberlin over the years, and the 1965 Commencement was not his first visit to Oberlin; he had previously visited in 1957, 1963, and 1964. During his 1964 visit, only his second appearance post-winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he gave a speech on integration efforts to over 2,500 students, faculty, and community members. This speech, “The Future of Integration,” sparked campus-wide conversation and caused faculty members to nominate him to receive an honorary degree the following year. Oberlin’s Doctorate was King’s 19th honorary degree.
The only concession Secretary Rusk made to student activists was agreeing to a brief meeting with them the night before Commencement. The meeting occurred as part of an agreement between Oberlin’s administration, Rusk, and the student body. Graduate Marcia Aronoff ’65 recalled, “[We] met with Rusk the night before to argue with him about the mistaken foreign policy of the United States…[and] with considerable hubris felt we could convince him of the inappropriateness of our position in Vietnam.” (Historical Note: At Oberlin, Aronoff served as co-chair of Oberlin Action for Civil Rights and as one of the co-founders of The Oberlin Sanctuary Project. She then went on to serve as Chief of Staff for Senator Bill Bradley before becoming Senior Vice President of Programs at the Environmental Defense Fund). Many students had reluctantly planned to miss MLK Jr.’s Commencement Address in their attempt to protest Secretary Rusk’s presence, but by meeting with him the night before, they were able to attend the event.
One can hope that the remarks MLK Jr. gave on that day in 1965, and his interactions with Oberlin students stayed with him in his last years of life. There remains a little-known strange and fatal final connection between MLK Jr. and Oberlin College. James Lawson was a civil rights activist and graduate of Oberlin’s Graduate School of Theology. While at Oberlin, one of his professors had introduced him to MLK Jr., sparking an activist partnership. In 1957, King urged Lawson to move to the south telling him, “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” Years later, Lawson extended an invitation to MLK Jr. in 1968 to come join him as he organized with and for black sanitation workers on strike in Memphis. While in Memphis, MLK Jr. delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and was then assassinated.
MLK Jr. ended his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech by stating, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
While it feels like we have countless impending things to fear, we must try to evoke MLK Jr.’s fearless and tenacious nature in our approaches to not only our activism, but in living our lives. To recall the title of MLK Jr’s 1965 Commencement Address, we must “remain awake through a great revolution”. Just like he did.