Event set to mark 50th anniversary of King's visit to WMU

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Photo of Martin Luther King Jr. at WMU.

King in the studio at WMUK-FM

KALAMAZOO—The 50th anniversary of a visit to Western Michigan University by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be marked with a Dec. 2 midday celebration of the words he spoke and the ideas he laid out before the Kalamazoo community on a snowy winter night in 1963.

"50 Years Later: Honoring the Legacy of MLK" is the theme of the anniversary event that is set for noon Monday, Dec. 2, in the North Ballroom of the Bernhard Center. In addition to the King speech, which will be partially resurrected for the occasion, the celebration will feature nationally known newsman and WMU alumnus Ed Gordon, who will be the keynote speaker and lead a panel of students and community members—one of whom was in the audience the night King originally spoke.

The free public event will offer those attending a chance to hear parts of a rarely heard formal address by King that was for many years literally lost. For that reason, the speech, which was a showcase for King's writing and oratorical skills, is not as widely known as many of his other speeches made during the same period.

King's visit to WMU

King traveled to WMU to speak in Read Fieldhouse Dec. 18, 1963, just four months after delivering his acclaimed "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and just weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—an event that King addressed in his remarks that evening.

The civil rights icon came to WMU as part of a lecture symposium series sponsored by the Lee Honors College and called "Conscience of America." His visit came late in a fall semester that also had seen a controversial address by Ross Barnett, the avowed segregationist who was then governor of Mississippi. Barnett had been invited to the campus by the 1963 senior class. King, in turn, came to speak about "Social Justice" at the behest of the Western Student Association—then called the student council—and the Lee Honors College.

King's lengthy speech and the question-and-answer session that followed touched on many critical issues of the era: faith, the end of segregation, affirmative action, discrimination, the importance of the rule of law, nuclear warfare, the segregated nature of America's churches and America's connection with such world problems as hunger. Despite the depth and breadth of topics covered in front of an audience of about 2,000 people that evening, the speech was largely lost to history because no audio recordings of the event were preserved.

'The Lost Tape'

Known locally as "The Lost Tape," an audio recording of King's Kalamazoo speech and post-speech remarks surfaced in 1997. The recording of public radio station WMUK's original broadcast was found by a Kalamazoo resident on a reel-to-reel machine that had been in storage since the 1970s. The recording has since been restored and parts will be used during the Dec. 2 anniversary event.

In addition to excerpts from King's presentation, WMU's Dec. 2 event will feature remarks by WMU President John M. Dunn, a keynote address on the theme by Gordon and a panel moderated by Gordon that will examine the legacy of King at WMU 50 years later.

Ed Gordon

Veteran journalist Gordon, who earned a bachelor's degree in communication and political science from WMU in 1982, is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program, "Weekend with Ed Gordon." The Emmy-award-winning broadcaster has been a reporter for NBC's "Today Show" and "Nightline," CBS' "60 Minutes II," and National Public Radio. He also was host of NPR's "News and Notes with Ed Gordon."

Kalamazoo panelists discussing the King legacy will be:

Thomas Coyne, WMU vice president emeritus for student affairs, who was a young staff member when he attended the King talk in 1963;

Parnell Flemming, WMU's 2013 homecoming king, a political science major with an emphasis in public law and vice president of the Black Student Union;

Hailey Mangrum, a communication major, student ambassador, homecoming coordinator and a student leader on campus who's affiliated with the Western Student Association and You Beautiful Black Woman; and

Brandy Morgan, an anthropology major and the current speaker of the Western Student Association.

The anniversary celebration is coordinated by WMU's Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Visit wmich.edu/mlk to find a transcript of the original Dec. 18, 1963, broadcast and photographs of that event as well as details about "The Lost Tape" and the historical context of King's visit. The information was compiled by WMU's Archives and Regional History Collections staff.