Martin Luther King, Jr. at Oberlin

Presentation by J. Milton Yinger, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at the 132nd Anniversary Commencement Exercises of Oberlin College on June 14, 1965


Few men have had a more decisive influence on America in the last decade than the man whom I have the honor to present today. He stands at the center of a movement concerned with one of the nation's most difficult problems. Although the origins of the movement lie deep in our history, we can date its current expression perhaps from that day in 1955 when a Negro lady in Montgomery said simply, by her actions, "I would like to sit where there is a seat, as others do." Out of the Montgomery struggle there came a man of such poise, such sensitivity to the Christian message, such awareness of the barriers, but also of the possibilities in America, that within a few months he became a national, and within a few years an international, leader.

It has often been observed that Martin Luther King has adapted the techniques of Gandhi to the American scene. This is undoubtedly true; but his sources are far wider. In reply to eight ministers who regretted the vigor of the protest against segregation, Dr. King wrote:

"You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws... An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over his injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law."

There is something of Patrick Henry as well as of Gandhi in this. But more than that, in the course of his long letter, Dr. King cited, among others, the eighth century prophets, Jesus, St. Paul, St. Thomas, Jefferson, Lincoln, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, not to mention Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Such is the reach of the goals and strategy of freedom.

Mr. President, the man I present to you is not a Negro leader only. In attacking the shameful walls which our society has erected, he has helped to free white men from their confinement in a severely limiting situation. He has helped to open the South to the world; but more importantly, he has decisively shown that this is one nation, and indeed one world.

We honor today a Christian minister in the best of the ministry's prophetic tradition, a wise strategist of a nonviolent campaign, a national leader who is struggling with great effectiveness with one of our most grievous problems, and a world citizen whose life is testimony that all men are brothers. It is with great appreciation and admiration that I present to you for the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Dr. Martin Luther King.

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