Lest we forget: Chance find rekindles memory of Martin Luther King Jr.'s visits to Cornell University in 1960 and 1961

Collective memory is a fabric that fades without use. So when Kenneth Clarke discovered Martin Luther King Jr.'s name in a Cornell University Sage Chapel ledger of past guest speakers, it was news to him. As it turns out, it's news to many people at Cornell and the greater Ithaca area.

Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work (CURW), did a double take when he spotted King's name, among hundreds of others listed in the ledgers, just last week. Doubting his eyes perhaps, Clarke confirmed the visit with former CURW director Robert Johnson and then found a Cornell Daily Sun article on microfilm at the university's Olin Library. Indeed, King had been invited to Cornell to deliver a sermon titled "The Three Dimensions of Life" at Sage Chapel in 1960.

The ledger entry simply reads: Nov. 13, The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The Ebenezer Baptist Church, 407 Auburn Ave., NE., Atlanta, Georgia . But what a story it tells.

According to the Daily Sun, King Jr. arrived in Ithaca that day on the Lehigh Valley Railroad shortly after 3 a.m. He had breakfast with students in the "Statler Sun Room," delivered a sermon to a standing-room-only congregation in Sage Chapel, then answered questions for a crowd gathered in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall.

Leafing through a dog-eared copy of King's collected sermons, titled "Strength of Love," Clarke found that the visit was King's last appearance in the United States before his historic trip to Nigeria, a country then celebrating its newfound independence from Great Britain. In fact, King flew directly from Ithaca to New York and from there to Africa. The day's events, recorded in both the Daily Sun and The Ithaca Journal, highlight King's unique employment of the sacred and the secular to educate, persuade, inspire and ultimately achieve permanent social change for Black people in the United States. "His arrival at Cornell came at a pivotal point in King's life and in American political and social history," Clarke said. "Just a few weeks prior to King's visit, John F. Kennedy was elected president by the narrowest margin over Richard Nixon. King's visit followed Kennedy's famous phone call to King when he was jailed in Atlanta for taking part in antisegregation sit-ins."

Kennedy's risky political gesture swayed many blacks in the South and West to vote for him and influenced the outcome of a very close election.

It is more commonly known that King's father, Martin Luther King Sr., spoke at Sage Chapel on Feb. 4, 1979, during the third Festival of Black Gospel at Cornell. But it is little known that his son preached from the Sage pulpit 19 years earlier. And, only a handful of Cornellians are aware that King Jr. returned to campus in April 1961 to speak at a fund-raiser in Bailey Hall, sponsored by the Cornell Committee Against Segregation and the Ithaca Freedom Walk. One of those people is Thomas Eisner, the J.G. Shurman Professor of Chemical Ecology at Cornell.

It was a life-changing moment for Eisner, who is well-known for his work with insects but hardly known for the stand he took against segregation in the early 1960s.

"I remember hearing King speak in Ithaca, and I was just bowled over," Eisner said. "I didn't need persuasion about the devastatingly unfair situation in regard to race relations. But King had the simplest yet most profound way of making a point, and he never wasted a word. His passion, conviction and personal courage inspired and deepened my personal commitment to social justice."

Eisner attended meetings of the Cornell Committee Against Segregation, whose chairman was Edward Hart, a now retired Ithaca ophthalmologist.

"I became involved with the committee when the Cornell students came downtown and invited us," said Hart. "A lot of different groups and churches got involved, and we raised about $6,000 in two days and sent the money on to Dr. King and his staff" at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Hart had greeted King at the Ithaca Airport and has a photograph of the occasion. He recalled a "torchlight parade" to, or from, a jam-packed Bailey Hall and the efforts of local churches to take a stand against segregation. The overflowing audience can be seen in pictures that now seem only to be available on microfilm.

The Daily Sun published a story with a photograph on King's talk at Bailey Hall in its April 17, 1961 edition. The headline reads "Reverend King Speaks on Negro's Problems, Cites Progress in Southern Race Relations." King's prior visit included an interview with students that was published in the defunct campus journal Dialogue (Vol. 1 No. 2), which expired in 1963. Clarke said King's Sage Chapel sermon, "The Three Dimensions of Life," is based on Revelations 21:16 from the Bible and was a regular part of his preaching repertoire, one that King "adapted to each setting," Clarke said. The MLK project papers at Stanford University cite King as having given "The Three Dimensions of Life" sermon to a Unitarian Church in Germantown, Pa., on Nov. 11, 1960.

Clarke, who was as surprised to find that King had returned to Cornell in 1961 as he was to learn that the Nobel Peace Prize winner had been to Cornell at all, is now seeking to have a plaque created to commemorate the Sage Chapel visits of both King Jr. and King Sr.

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