Martin Luther King Jr. At City College 50 Years Ago: A Historic Commencement

In the spring of 1963, the civil rights movement was in the thick of a tumultuous and pivotal period. The campaign had come to Birmingham, Ala., engulfing one of the South’s most virulently segregationist cities in weeks of confrontation and violence. The movement’s leaders, meanwhile, were mobilizing for a massive march on Washington that summer.


Photo by Stephen Sommerstein


And in New York City that spring 50 years ago, the president of City College was waging a campaign of his own. Buell G. Gallagher very much wanted that year’s commencement speaker to be the man guiding it all — the ascendant leader of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gallagher was an unusual college president and a man ahead of his time — a Congregational minister whose fight for racial equality predated the civil rights movement itself. Gallagher had called for an end to America’s “color caste” system in a book, Color and Conscience, that was published a year before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. And he knew Alabama’s culture of racism firsthand: Before his arrival at City College in 1952, he had spent 20 years as president of Talladega College — a white man from New Jersey at the helm of Alabama’s oldest private black college.

Gallagher was gripped by the events unfolding in Birmingham that spring: The protests led by King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The city’s answer with paddy wagons — 1,000 arrests on one day alone — and fire hoses when the jails were full. The arrest of King himself, and his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to white clergymen who had called him an extremist.

In early May, at the height of the roiling events in Alabama, Gallagher called Jack O’Dell, a member of King’s inner circle who was then the head of the SCLC’s New York office. Gallagher told O’Dell that the City College commencement, in Lewisohn Stadium, would be an opportunity for King to speak before 16,000 people — and to many more listening to a live broadcast — at a critical moment for the civil rights movement.

O’Dell, now two months shy of 90 and living in Vancouver, remembers that spring vividly. “It wasn’t just another year,” he says. “There was a lot going on, a feeling that we’re really going down this road. There was Birmingham, and we were mobilizing for the march on Washington. Dr. King was getting a lot of invitations. But there were few places more important than New York for anything progressive. ‘Freedom Now,’ that was what it was all about. City College had a very fine reputation for working class educational opportunity. I knew it was an audience that would respond well to what he had to say. And it might result in people going to the march.”


Photo by Stephen Sommerstein


King accepted the invitation the day he got it, and Gallagher was overjoyed when he heard the news. He wrote to King the same day: “It will be good to renew an old friendship, and particularly appropriate to do it publicly at this critical moment in our common struggle.”

A few weeks later, on the evening of June 12, Gallagher escorted King, in cap and gown, into Lewisohn Stadium, the college’s coliseum-style landmark on Convent Avenue. There were 3,541 graduates and another 12,000 guests, and what they experienced together was a moment poignantly juxtaposed with history. As it turned out, the commencement came in the midst of an extraordinary sequence of three seminal events for the civil rights movement.

In the month since the turbulent days in Birmingham, the focus had moved to Tuscaloosa, where segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace was defying a federal court order, personally barring two black students from registering for the summer session at the University of Alabama. The day before King’s commencement address in New York, President Kennedy sent Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, accompanied by federal marshals and National Guardsmen, to enforce the court order. In one of the most famous images of the civil rights era, Wallace finally stood aside as the students were escorted in.

That night, in a historic address from the White House, Kennedy declared segregation a national “moral crisis” and announced what was to become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And then, early the next morning, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death in front of his home in Mississippi.

It was against this backdrop, only 12 hours later, that Martin Luther King addressed the City College Class of ’63. There were other prominent commencement speakers in New York that same day — Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver at Fordham, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg at Yeshiva — and Adlai Stevenson was speaking up at Radcliffe. But none was in King’s league as a speaker, or appearing under such timely circumstances.

The graduates would be “moving into a world of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty,” King said in his opening moments. A few minutes in, he veered from the speech he had traveled with.

“Less than 24 hours ago, a dastardly act occurred in the State of Mississippi which revealed the moral degeneracy to which some will sink on the question of race,” he said. “In the death of Medgar Evers, America has lost one of those pure patriots whose most passionate desire was to be an American, and to be acknowledged as an American. Truly Mr. Evers died in the trenches, on the front line where the issue is now joined between that which our President has called for and the last ditch stand of the segregationists who would prefer to create a bloodbath of violence than to relinquish the deadening status quo.”

King held the audience as he always did, his soaring, poetic, prophetic rhetoric leading to hope for a time “when all of God’s children … will be able to join hands all over this nation and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last!  Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!’”

It was a precursor to the iconic words that were to ring out to 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial two months later: “I have a dream … ”

Among the graduates that day was a mathematics major named Matthew Goldstein.  Fifty years later, as he completes 14-years of service as Chancellor, Goldstein will deliver the commencement address on May 31 to the Class of 2013. On that day, the graduates will march in procession and pass the recently restored landmark Gothic academic buildings and continue along Convent Avenue beyond the former site of Lewisohn Stadium, where King’s words of hope resounded in the evening darkness long ago.

“His speech, interestingly enough, was not something that all of us fully understood at the time,” the Chancellor said. “There was excitement that this very important person was here in front of us, shaking us to be aware that the world was changing very quickly in front of our eyes. We knew we were on the cusp of historic events that we knew had to happen. I’ve since gone back and read the speech, and you can see he was trying out some of the themes of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which was a very significant catalytic event in mobilizing a lot of young people.”

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers

Bert Mitchell was sitting next to Goldstein that night and remembers the speech from a different perspective. Mitchell was among CCNY’s relatively few black students, one of a handful in what was then the college’s Baruch Business School.  It was the fact of King’s presence, and the force of his voice — his cadence and intonation — that he remembers more than the particular words he spoke. “It was a powerful thing,” said Mitchell, who went on to found what is now the nation’s largest minority-owned accounting firm.

Charles DeLisi, a renowned molecular biologist who founded the Human Genome Project in the 1980s, graduated that spring of 1963 with a double major in physics and history. He remembers Buell Gallagher as an avatar of social justice and the City College student body as “engaged and passionate, with unambiguously progressive leanings, even as the moral compass of the nation itself was still wavering.” Capping college in that tumultuous year, with parting words from King, the most transformative figure of the time, left “an imprint on my memory that remains undiminished even after a half century,” DeLisi wrote in an email.

Five years later, on the night of King’s assassination in Memphis, Gallagher came out of his house on the south campus of the college to speak to a crowd of students and Harlem residents. A reporter for a City College student newspaper, The Campus, recorded the scene:

“ ‘Ghandi was the same type of man and he died the same way,’ whispered Dr. Gallagher. For a few moments the president was very far away. In barely audible tones, he recalled commencement exercises some years ago which Dr. King had attended.”

That night in 1963 echoed again in 1970, when the University opened a new senior college in Brooklyn. The Board of Trustees voted to name it Medgar Evers College.

1963:  A Momentous Year in Civil Rights

January 18:
George Wallace is inaugurated as the governor of Alabama and declares: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”


April 3: 
Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference begin what becomes known as the Birmingham Campaign, two months of sit-ins and demonstrations in one of the country’s most violently segregationist cities.


April 12: 
King is arrested for demonstrating without a permit. Four days later, he writes his “Letter from a Birming-ham Jail,” a response to eight white Alabama ministers who had called him an extremist.


May 3-7:
After more than 1,200 arrests, the SCLC calls on children, teenagers and college students to continue the protests. Police use fire hoses and dogs on the young demonstrators, arresting another 1,000 people on a single day and shutting down Birmingham’s downtown business district.  Television coverage brings support for the protests from across the country.


May 8:  
White business leaders and city officials accept most of the protesters’ demands to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms and drinking fountains, and hire blacks as store clerks and salesmen.


May 11:
Segregationists bomb King’s motel and the home of his brother, A.D. King, triggering a night of rioting. A few weeks later, “Whites Only” signs are taken down from public facilities in Birmingham.


June 11:
President Kennedy sends federal marshals and National Guardsmen to enforce a federal court order desegregating the University of Alabama, escorting two black students past Wallace.  From the Oval Office that night, Kennedy calls segregation a national “moral crisis” and announces what will become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


June 12:
Early the morning after Kennedy’s address, Medgar Evers, the field secretary for the NAACP, is shot and killed in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.


June 12:
That night, the night of the Medgar Evers murder, King delivers the commencement address to the City College Class of 1963.


Photo by Stephen Sommerstein


August 28:
King leads 250,000 people in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivers his legendary “I have a dream” speech.


September 15:
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed, killing four young girls and sparking outrage across the country.


November 22:
President Kennedy’s assassination leaves the fate of the civil rights bill in the hands of his successor, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson goes on to push it through Congress and sign the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964.