On June 20, 1965, when the late American Civil Rights Leader and Orator Rev Dr Martin Luther King stood to deliver a stirring 30-minute sermon and valedictory address in the Assembly Hall, The UWI, Mona audience was speechless.
Dr King interestingly and humbly drew inspiration from Jamaica for his own political struggles in America.
His memorable speech, which marked its 50th anniversary last year, could recently be heard at The UWI Museum, which launched an occasional series titled, “UWI and the 1960s”, in collaboration with the Social History Project (SHP) of The UWI Department of History and Archaeology.
The series aims at examining the points of connection between the regional University and other regional and international events, movements and personalities.
“Those who heard Dr King in the flesh on that Sunday night at The UWI Assembly Hall have never forgotten it,” said Dr Suzanne Francis-Brown Director, The UWI Museum.
“Persons in that graduating class, whose valedictory service he attended and where he preached, report being awed, elated and very engaged in the message he brought,” said Francis-Brown.
One attendee was then UWI medical student E Anthony Allen, who was also a student representative on The UWI Chapel Committee. It was he who had first suggested that the invitation be extended to King, who had recently received a Nobel Peace Prize.
“To hear Martin Luther King speak was one of the greatest moments of my life,” recalled Dr Allen, now a psychiatrist. “There was stillness in the Assembly Hall. People wanted to hear every single word he said. His voice boomed and people just hung on to every word. No one in the world could articulate and endure what he stood for,” he continued.
“Even though I graduated from The UWI in 1966 and was then an undergrad, one of the things that stood out for me listening to Dr King was that he was in a country with people of colour who were running the country and that we held the country’s destiny in our hands,” Allen said.
“King was inspired to see how competently Jamaica was being run at that time, and seeing people of colour in positions of power,” Allen continued.
Allen also noted that having just received the Nobel Peace Prize, King had received global validation of his work. “The man and his work were taking root. There was also keen interest in what was happening in Africa in terms of apartheid, and if there was someone who could speak to the journey of the Caribbean it was Martin Luther King.”
The Chapel Committee, according to Allen, wanted to explore the relevance of faith to Jamaica’s struggle and that MLK’s theology of religion and liberation focus would have brought that integration to the Jamaican and Caribbean struggle.
“In the whole struggle against oppression, the idea of non-violence was a critical issue, and what this meant for Jamaicans was that we were going to get through the struggle,” he said.
“The white man in Jamaica was the shadow behind the capitalist system, because people of Caucasian descent ran the economy in many ways,” Allen commented. “What Martin Luther King said was that given the oppression we were receiving we don’t have to like the white man but that we should have an obligation to love him.”
Another message Allen gleaned from the King address was that one ought not to be caught up with status. “If we were to sweep the streets we should do it to the best of our ability, and that the lowliest of Caribbean persons had a critical part to play in the struggle.”
Professor Emeritus Patrick Bryan, 1965 graduate, reminisced about King’s visit saying that “undergraduates were aware of racism in the USA and of the denial of human, civil and voting rights to black persons there”. He said they were also keenly aware of racism in South Africa and Rhodesia. In fact, he said, the year before Martin Luther King’s arrival, UWI students took the opportunity to stage a demonstration outside the Assembly Hall (where the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association was meeting) in order to express their outrage at the racist regime in Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe).
“King’s brilliant and inspirational 1965 address, which appealed to the principle of equality embodied in the United States constitution, therefore struck a sympathetic chord among undergraduates. Jamaica, of course, had its own problems of inequality, but given the experience in the USA, where blacks were not treated as persons, Martin Luther King’s speech showed considerable personal appreciation for the freedoms enjoyed in Jamaica.” Bryan pointed out.
Professor Matthew Smith, head of the SHP, told UWIMONA Now that King’s visit to the Campus was of great significance to The UWI and the island. “At the time Dr King arrived he had already received a Nobel Peace Prize for his remarkable efforts in leading the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The visit occurred only a few months after the events in Selma, Alabama. All these events made the visit indeed very significant for The UWI, Dr King and also the students who were privileged to witness his valedictory sermon,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, Smith noted that “one of the standout points” was King’s interpretation of the Jamaican national motto: Out of Many, One People. “For Dr King, the motto was strikingly relevant to the Civil Rights struggle he was leading and to the world in 1965 because in his view, it encapsulated the ideals of integration. To quote him: ‘The challenge facing the world is made right here in this island: Out of Many, One People: This is the great new challenge of mankind’.”
“This was an interpretation slightly different from the intended one we have in Jamaica yet it really spoke to the heart of his philosophy and ideals: That all people should be respected regardless of their differences,” Smith said.
“This was in the midst of the violence he had witnessed and felt personally and the violence in Vietnam. Though we may feel differently about the motto today, Dr King’s high regard for it is a signal for its power on a people of another country denied the humanity it promises. I think this message would have resonated for the young graduates preparing for a future in a newly independent country. It would have affirmed for them the potential of Jamaica and the Caribbean in influencing wider movements,” Smith said. He said Dr King also emphasised the importance of being dignified in work regardless of what it is you do, noting that this was a strong message that remains relevant.
Over the years, The UWI has been a magnet for many famous visitors to the countries across the region. In the early years, when Mona was the founding Campus, they were often invited to join the principal at dinner with students from across the region. As The University grew and spread, its importance to regional development continued to draw visitors. Some have come to be awarded special recognition, like Emperor Haile Selassie, Harry Belafonte and Nelson Mandela. Others have come for other occasions, like Dr King in 1965 and President Obama 50 years later.
Museum Curator, Francis-Brown, noted that The UWI Museum had been in dialogue with the SHP and others to find ways to refocus on relevant aspects of The UWI’s history, especially where it overlapped with national and regional events. “Within that context, we agreed to an occasional series focusing on The UWI and the 1960s, the 60s having been a period of ferment, challenge and change around the world, often involving universities. The UWI had seen its share of engagement with the issues of the day and Rev Dr King’s visit was an example,” said Francis-Brown.
Hailing Francis-Brown’s contribution to the King tribute at The UWI Museum, Smith said: “The SHP’s partnership with The UWI Museum was very critical. The input of Museum Director Dr Suzanne Francis-Brown was crucial as we worked together in conceptualising and putting the event together. She sourced important documents on Dr King's visit. These included rare photographs of him on the campus and correspondence between Dr King and The UWI officials regarding the visit. These documents added tangibility to the event as participants could connect Dr King's visit with the presentations of the panellists. In addition, the event was held at The UWI Museum in the Regional Headquarters of The UWI which is a fitting venue for the series.”
The SHP is a division of the Department of History and Archaeology. The SHP was established in the 1970s to support postgraduate research in Jamaican social history. It has expanded significantly over the years and is now involved in promoting research in Caribbean slavery, emancipation, heritage, and archaeology. The SHP has organised workshops and conferences on major themes in Caribbean history. The most recent conference was held in October 2015 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica.
“One of the missions of the SHP is to support projects relative to aspects of Jamaican social history in the twentieth century,” Smith noted. To this end, he said, the SHP was working with other groups on the “The UWI and the 1960s” project which aims to highlight some of the key intersections between The University and that pivotal decade in regional history. “It is important to reassess this history and to bring it to the attention of students and the general public. Some of the themes we plan to address include regionalism, black consciousness, education, culture, political development, student activism and the early years of independence,” Smith told UWIMONA Now.
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