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Revisiting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 Speech at Penn State

On this day, 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to over 8,000 people inside Rec Hall. Silently, they all listened to the Reverend speak about the past of the Civil Rights movement and the future that lay ahead.

“We have come a long, long way in the struggle for racial justice,” Dr. King’s voice echoed. “But we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved.”

His speech began by addressing the advancements made for economic and political equality, illustrating the journey of African Americans through the years of slavery and segregation. Citing urbanization and the cultural knowledge it inspired, Dr. King helped his audience understand sources of the dignity and determination seen in activists everywhere.

“Not only has the Negro come a long, long way in reevaluating his own intrinsic worth,” he noted. “If we are true to the facts, we must say that the whole nation has come a long, long way in extending the frontiers of civil rights.”

As the speech continued, he emphasized the progress that still needed to be made. “We need only open our newspapers and turn on our televisions, and we see with our own eyes that this problem is still with us…we will see it because no community in our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.”

Dr. King also discussed the struggle that African Americans were still encountering when exercising their right to vote. “For almost 16,000 Negroes, and only about 250 are registered to vote, not because they don’t want to register, but because the registrars absolutely refuse to register Negroes as voters. If democracy is to be a reality, this problem must be solved.”

He continued to urge the president and federal government to remove racial obstacles that impeded a mature democracy.

“I am absolutely convinced that if democracy is to live, segregation must die,” he proclaimed.

The then-37-year old stressed the importance of creating strong, legal provisions as a means of changing habits, as well as understanding that issues at hand could not be solved by waiting for time to pass. As a proposed solution, Dr. King suggested, “It is necessary for every state to have strong civil rights legislation, to deal with the problems [of] job discrimination, segregated housing, and segregated educational facilities.”

At the most powerful peak of the speech, Dr. King talked about the beneficial impact of nonviolent protests. “Some things [are] so eternally true that they are worth dying for, and if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live,” King said.

This dedication was especially salient during his Penn State visit, which occurred just days after he was assaulted by a segregationist in Selma, Ala. and two months after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Ever the powerful orator, Dr. King’s speech concluded with an emotional message:

“Before victory is won, some more will be thrown into crowded and frustrating jail cells, but we shall overcome,” his voice rang. “Before victory is won, some will be called bad names…but we shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some more may have to face physical death, but if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from an eternal psychological death and eternal death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive. Yes, we shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Image: Penn State University Archives

To celebrate and continue Dr. King’s legacy, several events are occurring on campus in the coming days.

There will be a Speak for Peace: Social Justice Reception and MLK Oratorical Contest at 6:30 p.m. tonight and a viewing of the documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later at 7 p.m. On Thursday, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson will speak at Schwab Auditorium on the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama. On Friday, a Peace Sit-in will occur in the West Cultural Lounge at 5:30 p.m.

The full list of events can be found here.

About the Author

Alex Calderaro

Alex Calderaro is a junior majoring in Supply Chain Management from Central Jersey. As a first generation Penn Stater, she has found a home here in several places, including her sorority, and, of course, Onward State. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @alexcalderaro.


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