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 an unprecedented demonstration that summer — the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In New York City that spring 50 years ago, the president of City College was waging a campaign of his own. Buell 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. And in the midst of battle in Birmingham, King agreed.
Weeks later, on the evening of June 12, he took the stage of City College’s Lewisohn Stadium and delivered a speech that was to resonate for decades in the minds and memories of the Class of 1963. Among them was a math and statistics major named Matthew Goldstein. And 50 years later, in a moment of symmetry and poignance, he was at the podium himself — bringing his 14-year tenure as Chancellor of CUNY to a conclusion by delivering the Commencement address to his alma mater’s Class of 2013.
Lewisohn Stadium is long gone from Convent Avenue, replaced by the college’s North Academic Center, but when Chancellor Goldstein addressed the graduates on the same site on May 31, his speech echoed the words of Martin Luther King and the spirit of that time in the nation’s history and his own.
“His complete conviction in the need for moral clarity and action carried to every corner of the stadium through his emotion, his cadence, the timbre of his voice,” the chancellor recalled. “Dr. King was not — in that moment or ever — a Commencement speaker. He was a nearly biblical voice of justice and outrage.”
Perhaps never more than on that night in 1963, by chance of history, the City College Commencement came in the wake of an extraordinary sequence of three seminal events of the civil rights era. And King would not have been there, in that moment, if not for the moral clarity of the man who asked him to come.
Buell G. Gallagher was an unusual college president and a man ahead of his time. He 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 first-hand: Before his arrival at City College in 1952, Gallagher 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 then with 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 CCNY commencement, in the college’s 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 liked the idea and tried to call King in Birmingham to recommend the invitation. But he couldn’t reach him, not after several tries, and front-page headlines like this one from New York Times explained why: BOMBS TOUCH OFF WIDESPREAD RIOT AT BIRMINGHAM; Negroes Attack Police After Blasts Rip Home of King’s Brother and Motel.
O’Dell finally decided to write to King. “Dear Martin,” he wrote. “I hope that this letter finds you well, considering everything that has happened. I’ve been attempting to get in touch with you for several days, but I know circumstances are most difficult.” He conveyed Gallagher’s commencement invitation and urged King to accept.
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.”
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, 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 sharply juxtaposed with history.
In the month since the turbulent days in Birmingham, the focus had moved to Tuscaloosa, where 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, Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP, was shot to death in front of his home in Jackson, Miss. He was returning home from an early-morning meeting with NAACP lawyers and carrying a stack of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.”
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 compelling 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… ”
In his own Commencement address 50 years later, Chancellor Goldstein recalled for this year’s graduates what it was like to be in their seats that day, hearing words that are no less relevant today.
“Dr. King wasn’t at City College that day to suggest prestigious professions we might enter, or how to achieve personal success, or how our degrees would impact our income,” said the Chancellor. “No. Dr. King was there to tell us what our education was really for. And none of us who listened to him that day ever forgot it. We live in a day of great crisis, Dr. King told us. … A complete education, he said, bestows not only ‘the power of concentration,’ but also ‘worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.’”
But it was the feeling, more than the message, that the Chancellor says was most affecting and impactful. “His speech, interestingly enough, was not something that all of us fully understood at the time,” he said in an interview a few weeks before the Commencement. “He was shaking us to be aware that the world was changing very quickly in front of our eyes.”
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. But for him, too, it was the fact of King’s presence, and the force of his voice that he remembers more than the particular words he spoke. “His cadence, his intonation … It was a powerful thing,” says Mitchell, who went on to found what is now the nation’s largest minority-owned accounting firm. Years later, his son was preparing a graduation speech as president of his high school class. “He didn’t want my help, and I said, ‘I’ve heard some great speeches. The speaker at my college graduation was Martin Luther King — how do you like that?’”
Five years later, on the night of King’s assassination in Memphis, Gallagher came out of his house to speak to a crowd of students and Harlem residents. A reporter for a CCNY 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 CUNY 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, 1963:
George Wallace is inaugurated as the governor of Alabama and declares: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
April 3, 1963:
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, 1963:
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, 1963:
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, 1963:
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, 1963:
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, 1963:
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, 1963:
That night, the night of the Medgar Evers murder, King delivers the commencement address to the City College Class of 1963.
September 15, 1963:
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed, killing four young girls and sparking outrage across the country.
November 22, 1963:
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.
About The City University of New York:
The City University of New York is the nation’s leading urban public university. Founded in New York City in 1847, the University is comprised of 24 institutions: 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, the William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, the CUNY Graduate School and University Center, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, the CUNY School of Law, the CUNY School of Professional Studies and the CUNY School of Public Health. The University serves more than 269,000 degree credit students and 218,083 adult, continuing and professional education students.College Now, the University’s academic enrichment program, is offered at CUNY campuses and more than 300 high schools throughout the five boroughs of New York City. The University offers online baccalaureate degrees through the School of Professional Studies and an individualized baccalaureate through the CUNY Baccalaureate Degree. Nearly 3 million unique visitors and 10 million page views are served each month via www.cuny.edu, the University’s website.