Event commemorates 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s talk at ONU
Those who were at the historic event will share their memories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s talk at Ohio Northern University during a panel discussion at 11 a.m. on Jan. 18 in the Freed Center for the Performing Arts. The discussion will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s talk at ONU’s Taft Gymnasium on Jan. 11, 1968.
The panel discussion, which kicks off a series of events to honor the occasion, is free and open to the public. It will culminate with the unveiling of a statue of Dr. King on April 17 outside of Taft Hall.
The Jan. 18 panel discussion will include panelists Terry Keiser, Alfred Cohoe, Monty Siekerman, Sadicka White, Bob Parsons, Bob Roberts and Joel Weaver. Keiser and Cohoe were ONU faculty members at the time and Siekerman was ONU’s director of university information, while the others were students at Ohio Northern.
The event will also feature the ONU Gospel Ensemble and prayers, which will be led by current students.
“Dr. King’s talk was a watershed moment in the life of the university as well as his work in leading the civil rights movement,” said ONU chaplain, the Rev. David MacDonald. “His talk occurred in the midst of his ‘poor people’s campaign’ and was at the beginning of Dr. King talking against the Vietnam War. It is clear from his words that Dr. King was passionate about issues of justice and equality; issues for which he fought until the day he died.”
Dr. King’s talk at ONU was one of the last speeches he gave at a college or university. According to ONU archivist Paul Logsdon, Dr. King spoke at Kansas State University on Jan. 19, 1968 and at Manchester (Ind.) College on Feb. 1. He was assassinated in Memphis on April 4.
“It is difficult for us today to fully grasp the courage Dr. King had in speaking out in support of civil rights and equality for all,” MacDonald said. “At that time, those were revolutionary and very controversial topics. Consequently, a lot of people did not like what he was saying. Dr. King realized the risk he was taking, yet he was willing to put his life on the line for the greater good.”
Those who attended the Rev. King’s talk have vivid memories of the occasion.
“A common theme from those who were at the talk is what a powerful speaker Dr. King was and how he had the crowd in the palm of his hand,” MacDonald said. “They also talk about the presence he had. When he was speaking, you could hear a pin drop in the gym.”
“People also recall how packed Taft Gymnasium was and how people lined up for hours beforehand. There was also an overflow area in the Lehr Building auditorium, where the speech was broadcast,” MacDonald said. “In later years, people had a greater understanding of the significance of this moment.”
More than 3,000 people were in the Taft Gymnasium audience.
Siekerman was in his first year as the university’s public relations officer when he handled press for Dr. King’s talk.
“The speech was electric, and he was captivating,” Siekerman remembers. “Working at a university, I have heard a number of speakers, but no one compares with him.”
“Rev. King spoke with a preacher’s style and cadence. His voice went up and down, and it was very effective,” Siekerman said. “I recall that he spoke without any notes.”
Security was tight, and the atmosphere was tense, Siekerman recalls.
“Because of security concerns, we did not know how we was getting here. Once on campus, Dr. King went directly from his car, through a back door at Taft and right to the stage. Rev. King then left right after his talk. When he was late to arrive, there was concern, but, as I remember, the crowd was very patient.”
“The place was filled, and we had a good press turnout, with a number of TV cameras on hand.”
The Rev. King’s appearance at ONU was arranged by James S. Udy, who was ONU’s chaplain at the time. Udy and the Rev. King attended seminary together at Boston University.
Beyond the university community, numerous individuals from the area, especially those from Lima, attended the talk.
“This was not only a signature moment for the nation and ONU, but also for the university’s chapel program,” MacDonald said. “Since, a common thread has been that the chapel staff has been mindful to think about programming that will expand the horizons of our university community.
Information about Dr. King’s historic visit to ONU is available online at: www.onu.edu/mlk.