Sunday, January 27, 2013
Editor's note: A different version of this story appeared in the Jan. 22 edition of the Berkshire Eagle.
Two years before his famous "I Have a Dream" speech and seven years to the month before being cut down by an assassin's bullet, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Berkshire County, MA. and gave three talks to Williams College students in a single day to explain his ideas on civil disobedience.
"Frankly, we are breaking laws in the South," King told one rapt audience at the college in Williamstown on April 16, 1961. "But there are two types of laws -- just laws and unjust laws. I believe that if society brings into being unjust laws, a moral man has no alternative than to rise up."
Six months earlier, King had backed up those words when he was arrested, along with about 300 other protesters, during a sit-in at the segregated restaurant at Rich's, a department store in Atlanta. King was sentenced to six months of hard labor at the Georgia State Prison, but was released through the intervention of then-presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy.
King's visit to Williams College in April 1961 was part of a barnstorming tour of colleges in Western Massachusetts. His visit to Williams came a day after he was at Smith (where his daughter, Yolanda, would later receive her bachelor's degree) and a day before an appearance at Amherst College.
At Williams, King addressed a dinner for a student religious group, gave a sermon at the college chapel, and participated in a question-and-answer session with students. In total, more than 1,000 people saw him during his visit to the school.
King told his listeners that the idea behind the sit-ins concerned resistance without violence, hatred of segregation without hatred of the segregationist, and a desire to raise the consciousness of the opponent rather than to humiliate him, according to a Berkshire Eagle article that appeared the next day. The reporter described King, then 32, as "a short, handsome man" who was "an intense, direct and inspiring speaker."
The sit-ins of segregated lunch counters began in 1960 with four black college students in Greensboro, N.C., and quickly spread throughout the South.
"This movement is more than a lot of noise about hamburger. I don't think these students are hungry. It's a demand for respect," King told his audience.
King invoked the Boston Tea Party in his discussion, calling it "one of the highest expressions of civil disobedience" and said that "those of us who break segregation laws feel we are in noble company."
The response from the students was overwhelming.
"Dr. King's talk at the dinner drew a standing ovation of more than a minute for its spiritual and intellectual quality," the Eagle reporter, Arthur Myers, wrote.
It would be three more years before a federal Civil Rights Bill was passed that banned discrimination against blacks at hotels and restaurants, barred employers from discriminating based on race and allowed the federal government to sue school systems that refused to desegregate. King continued to fight for the rights of minorities and the underclass until his murder on April 4, 1968 as he stood on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tenn.
In 1974, Massachusetts, along with Connecticut, passed laws making his birthday a state holiday a decade before it became a federal holiday. Illinois was the first state to make King's birthday a legal holiday.
Friday, January 18, 2013
If you are like me and wonder how accurate a historical film or bio pick is (sometimes to the detrement of fully enjoying the movie) historian Dr. Will Swift will be discussing that very subject in regard to "Hyde Park on the Hudson," a film that premiered this fall at the Toronto Film Festival and went into general release last month.
The film, starring Bill Murray as President Franklin Roosevelt and Laura Linney as his cousin, and lover, Daisey Suckley, recounts a weekend in 1938 in which King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were guests of the president at Hyde Park, the Roosevelt's family home in Dutchess County.
Swift, the author of "The Roosevelts and the Royals," will parse out truth from fiction and give the real story of that well-known weekend.
The event will be held this Saturday January 19th at 3 p.m. at the Chatham Public Library
The program is sponsored by the Friends of the Chatham Public Library. A reception will follow Will Swift's talk. For more information go to http://chatham.lib.ny.us/.