Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1958 commencement address at Arkansas AM&N College inspired hundreds of students and gave the college the distinguished honor of being the only establishment in Arkansas where Dr. King spoke.
Image Credit: University of Arkansas Library
Dr. King’s involvement in the nonviolent Civil Rights movement began in 1955 when he served as the spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which resulted in the integration of the city's bus lines. In 1957, he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which helped to provide the necessary leadership for the growing civil rights movement. So by 1958, Dr. King (though only 29 years old) was already a leading force in the civil rights movement.
That same year, the graduation committee at the historically black Arkansas Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), was looking for the right speaker to give the commencement address to its 233 graduating seniors.
According to Lawrence A. Davis Jr., former UAPB Chancellor and 1958 AM&N graduate, the commencement committee was aware of the controversy that Dr. King's presence would incite. Nonetheless, they still decided to invite him. Chancellor Lawrence Davis Sr. even received death threats as a direct result of this choice.
Dr. King was a controversial figure who some thought of as a troublemaker because he continually challenged the racial status quo of his day. In spite of this view, Chancellor Lawrence A Davis Sr. introduced Dr. King as “a new type of mass leader, one of the most interesting, unique, and effective people on the scene today,” at the graduation ceremony.
In his speech, Dr. King spoke of the methods, benefits, and sacrifices necessary on the road to racial freedom and equality for Black Americans. He referred numerous times to the Little Rock Nine as an example of how nonviolent protest was challenging and changing the system of racial injustice. (The Little Rock Nine had dared to challenge the segregation of public schools by enrolling in the then all-white Central High School in September of the previous year.)
Dr. King stated that "Through the use of nonviolence, understanding, and goodwill we will achieve desegregation and integration. After we are brought together physically, we will come together spiritually because men will see that it is right and natural. We believe that we are on God's side and that God is with us. Go home determined to revolt against segregation and discrimination everywhere."
During the historic commencement address, Dr. King also used some of the language that would later appear in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech when he said, "Freedom must ring from Southern mountains too," and "Then all men can stand together, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, and sing another song — 'free at last, free at last.'" His inspiring speech received several rounds of applause and a standing ovation from the more than 1,000 people who attended the gra
Despite Dr. King's reception at the university, many were angered by his speech. Chancellor Lawrence Davis Sr. and the AM&N College bore the brunt of this anger. A white state legislator told Davis, "You double-crossed us," and lawmakers slashed $50,000 from the school's funding in retaliation the very next year. This budget cut would last for several years following Dr. King's speech at AM&N.
Even these efforts could not negate or diminish the effect Dr. King's speech had on the students of AM&N College.
John W. Walker, a graduating senior at AM&N in 1958 who later became an Arkansas politician, was inspired by King's speech. After becoming a civil rights lawyer, he also participated in many landmark racial discrimination cases throughout Arkansas and the south.
Annie Flint-McKnight, only a 17-year-old sophomore at the time, still vividly remembers and lives by the principles in Dr. King's speech more than 60 years later. During a 2020 television interview, Flint-McKnight recalls experiencing cold chills when Dr. King said, “if you are striving to be the best negro doctor, the best negro lawyer, the best negro anything, then I’m afraid you have flunked the entrance examination into the school of integration because you’re not just competing with negros. You’re competing with everybody.”
King's speech and his nonviolent civil rights campaign inspired AM&N students to organize sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter in Pine Bluff five years later, in 1963. It also inspired many junior high and high school students to engage in direct action protest tactics throughout Pine Bluff’s entire downtown area.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went on to become one of the greatest civil rights leaders in U.S. history. Thankfully, UAPB and the city of Pine Bluff had the honor of being a part of his remarkable journey.
Written By: Ninfa O. Barnard