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Impact of MLK Keuka speech seen in letter

Blessed with a powerful voice that delivered a message of healing and hope, Martin Luther King Jr. won over many skeptics.Including some at Keuka College in 1963.The civil rights leader, who was felled by an assassin’s bullet less than five years later (April 4, 1968), delivered the baccalaureate address and received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree June 16. He was accompanied to Keuka Park by his wife, Coretta Scott King.“As I understand the history of the event, there were those supporters of the College who questioned the validity of inviting a speaker who was controversial due to his passive civil resistance of authorities in Alabama and other parts of the South,” said College President Joseph G. Burke. “However, then Keuka President William S. Litterick had the courage and foresight to understand the long term importance of Dr. King in American history and the wisdom to see that Dr. King’s cause was right and contributed to social justice in the United States.”Burke said social responsibility “has always been a core value of Keuka College and Martin Luther King epitomized how a single person can affect the lives of so many. Therefore, our college took the risk of inviting Dr. King to Keuka to receive an honorary degree and speak at baccalaureate.”In a July 23, 1963 letter to King, Litterick wrote:“As you can well imagine, there was no unanimous opinion among students, faculty or trustees supporting our invitation to you and Mrs. King. There was opposition.”King faced opposition on a daily basis while leading a movement that achieved historic reforms, and his pursuit of a color-blind society cost him his freedom on numerous occasions.Two months before his speech at Keuka College, King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala. While incarcerated, he penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, a turning point in the war to end desegregation in the South.In his book, Keuka College: A History, Professor Emeritus of History Philip A. Africa wrote that King was “released from a Mississippi jail the night before” he came to Keuka. Rumors that the College facilitated his release from jail have never been substantiated.While actions do speak louder than words, King’s words were enough to change the minds of those who opposed his visit to Keuka College . Wrote President Litterick:“Your eloquence, your clear, sincere and forthright expression of views, your quiet, unreserved understatement, which was very powerful, all contributed to the changing of the minds of many of those who had opposed our invitation. Every single member of the Board who was in opposition has written to me or expressed to me verbally his complete change of heart after hearing you.”“That speaks to King’s power of charisma,” said Mike McKenzie, associate professor of philosophy and religion.Litterick’s letter followed one King penned to Litterick July 3. In it, King expressed his “thanks to you and the trustees of Keuka College” for awarding him the honorary degree.

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