As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, we look back to 1958, the year Dr. King delivered a historic commencement address at Arkansas AM&N College.
By 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was already a major leader in the rapidly expanding Civil Rights Movement. During the previous year, King had led a passive boycott against segregation on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama that had gotten results.
His growing impact caught the attention of the commencement committee of the Arkansas Agriculture Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). The committee was looking for a keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony that May. They invited Dr. King to address the audience, which included the 233 students awarded degrees that year.
According to Lawrence A. Davis, Jr., a member of the 1958 graduating class and former chancellor of UAPB, Dr. King was a controversial figure and not everyone in the community was receptive of his presence. “He was viewed in a very negative way by a lot of people, both black and white,” Davis said at the time. “The people on the commencement committee recommended [Dr. King] knowing it would create a lot of controversy.”
At the ceremony, Davis’ father, AM&N president, Lawrence Davis, Sr., introduced Dr. King, calling him “a new type of mass leader, one of the most interesting, unique, and effective people on the scene today.”
Dr. King’s commencement message centered on upheaving the status quo in order to end segregation.
“We must all learn to live together as brothers in this world or we will all die together as fools,” he said. “We must work passionately and unremittingly for first-class citizenship. But we must not use second-class methods to get it.”
With words like these, Dr. King received many rounds of applause and a standing ovation from the capacity crowd of more than 1,000 people attending the ceremony in the school’s gymnasium.
“Through the use of non-violence, understanding and goodwill we will achieve desegregation and integration,” King continued. “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.”
Not everyone was thrilled about Dr. King’s comments. Lawrence Davis, Sr. received severe backlash for inviting Dr. King. “You double-crossed us,” Davis remembered the state legislature telling his father. In retaliation, lawmakers slashed the school’s annual appropriation by $50,000 for several years.
Today, UAPB holds the honor as the only institution in Arkansas at which Dr. King spoke.
If you were in the audience on this historic day, what was the experience like? What do you remember? We would love to hear about your experiences.
Dr. Martin Luther King pictured with the late Dr. Lawrence A. Davis, Sr., President of AM&N College at the time.
Image Credit: Special Collections Department, University of Arkansas Libraries, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Sources: African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, OnlyinArkansas.com