175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 - 2008

Martin Luther King Jr.

The nation observed the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on Friday, April 4, 2008. The city and College can consider the history made with King, not once but several times. The civil rights leader spoke at Finney Chapel and, in 1965, gave the Commencement address.

King made several visits to Oberlin during the height of the civil rights movement to speak about his work and to challenge the city and College to greater work in social justice and equality. His first official visit occurred in 1957, several months after the 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that ended segregation in public transportation in Alabama.

While in Oberlin, King gave three talks: “Justice Without Violence,” “The New Negro in the South,” at the First Church of Oberlin, and “The Montgomery Story,” during a noon assembly at Finney Chapel.

During the early 1960s, Oberlin invited several prominent social activists and civil rights leaders to campus as guest lecturers. The lineup in November 1963 included King, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and Malcolm X, then a Muslim and a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Oberlin slated King first but he was suffering from a bout with the flu. Although he came to Oberlin, King realized he was too ill to speak and apologized to the jammed packed audience at Finney Chapel.  Perhaps his shortest speech ever, his two-minute apology was eclipsed by the three-minute standing ovation he received.

His next visit to Oberlin came in October 1964, shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Southern Leadership Conference, his philosophy on nonviolence, and for leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955) and the March on Washington (1963), among other important achievements in the civil rights struggle.  His speech “The Future of Integration” was heard in Finney Chapel by an estimated 2,500 students, faculty, staff and visitors. In addition, the campus radio station WOBC-FM broadcast his talk in Hall Auditorium and Kettering Hall.

His last visit to Oberlin was in 1965 when the College invited him to give the 132nd Commencement address and to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.. “Remaining Awake Through a Revolution.” J. Milton Yinger, professor of sociology and a civil rights activist in Oberlin, introduced King. “I can never come to this campus without a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for all that this great institution has done for the cultural, political, and social life of our nation and the world,” King stated. “By all standards of measurement, Oberlin is one of the great colleges, not only of our nation, but of the world.”

In honor of King’s life, service, and associations with Oberlin, artist Paul Arnold ’40, ’41, professor emeritus of art, received a commission to design and erect a monument in his honor. It was dedicated in 1987 and is located on East Vine Street.

King and Oberlin represent a City+College shared legacy of social commitment.