On Jan. 11, 1968, classes ended at 10 a.m. to allow for students to attend the speech. It is estimated that approximately 4,500 people listened to King that day, 2,500 in Taft and another 2,000 in Lehr Auditorium where the audio from Taft was carried live.
It is always a rich and rewarding experience to take a brief break from the day-to-day demands of our struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with college and university students and concerned friends of good will.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On January 11, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Ohio Northern University. At the time of his visit to Ada, Ohio and ONU, Dr. King was an international figure. He was the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Prize and only the 12th American to ever do so. He was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and a key social figure of the turbulent 1960s.
It was a different time. It was a different place. We were a predominantly white campus in a predominantly white, small, Midwestern farming community. The societal turbulence we heard about seemed mostly to be somewhere else, like some city in the deep South we had never visited and probably never would. We were being influenced by parents and friends. We only knew what we saw on television, or read in newspapers – if we even read the newspapers. We were busy being students, trying to get through chem-this, and calculus-that, and foreign language 304. We were busy trying to make grades in order to receive draft deferments, because who wanted to go to Vietnam? Who wanted to get shot? Who wanted to kill somebody else? Who wanted to die?
I don’t know how I found myself in Taft Gym that day. I went alone. I was not far from Dr. King, perhaps 50 feet or so. He did not seem as scary as I had expected him to be given all the things I had heard about him. The Dr. King I “knew” was a radical, a communist sympathizer and a social malcontent who wanted to overthrow the country as we knew it. I realize now that we knew so little about the world – about people who lived in other parts of our own country. In many cases we were simply unable to comprehend differences, much less tolerate them, or even begin to try to understand.
What Dr. King brought to Ohio Northern University that day was a level of compassion for men and women everywhere, and an unending willingness to patiently move change in a positive direction, that I had never seen or heard in anyone else. His commanding voice did not command, it urged. It made clear his intention to never stop loving others, to never stop pressing for equality and to never stop trying to make this world a better place for all. No one can put a price on this valuable life-lesson. It sticks with me, and while I know there is so much left to do, I hope that in some way, I am a better person for sitting in Taft Gym on that day, when I could have been in one of a hundred different places and felt much more comfortable.
I was 20. At the time, I was more concerned about my social life, athletic career, grade point average, draft status and future wedding than I was about a civil rights leader from a state in the south I had never visited. It piqued my curiosity that basically an all-white campus and community invited a black civil rights leader to speak on campus. So, I went, expecting a small crowd in Taft. In my provincial mind, Dr. King was a relatively unknown person. Boy, was I shocked to see how wrong I was! I could not find a space to set foot in Taft Gymnasium. The closest I came to the stage was the vestibule of Taft where I listened to Dr. King over speakers installed for those standing outside the overflowing gym. I don’t recall much about the verbiage in the speech, but I can readily reflect the passion I heard in his voice and the cadence synonymous with Martin Luther King Jr.. I left that day realizing I was indeed fortunate to have, even remotely, been in that man’s presence.
I was a white student from a rural white school system, a white hometown and a white church. I supposed that my values and expectations were typical of the world’s values and expectations. I was a chemistry major, receiving Cs in the philosophy and religion courses that I took only because they were required. In no way could I have imagined on Jan.11, 1968, that I would go on to attend seminary and become a pastor myself, serving in Ohio churches for 35 years.
Dr. King’s visit was a pivotal moment that challenged my assumptions and attitudes about race and privilege, of status and justice. Since that day, I’ve become more convinced that the all-white churches of my youth were incomplete visions of the Kingdom of God. I’ve seen that the depth of spirit and the diversity of God’s gifts are discouraged by settings where invisible barriers ensure that everyone will look “just like us.” I’ve felt an appreciation for brothers and sisters who warmly welcomed me to the urban neighborhoods that they called home, but which so many of my parishioners avoided. I began to see the racist attitudes that were, in fact, a part of me, even though I would have denied the idea. For me, seeing Dr. King was indeed a divinely appointed life-shaping moment. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to experience it.
Retired Ohio Northern University Chaplain Vern LaSala traveled to Australia in 2004 to interview the surviving family of Dr. James Udy, ONU chaplain from 1963-69, to learn how he convinced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – one of the most famous men on the planet at the time – to come to Ada to speak as part of a new chapel lecture series.
The story began at the University of Boston, where Udy and King were both Ph.D. candidates in the School of Theology. The two men developed a friendship strong enough that when Udy contacted King with his request to speak at ONU, King said yes… eventually. According to his widow, Ann, Dr. Udy pursued King for a couple of years to get him to come speak at ONU. Apparently, King accepted invitations on two prior occasions but was unable to fulfill these commitments due to incarceration. In all, King was jailed nearly 30 times for acts of civil disobedience or false charges.
“Dad was known for his perseverance,” says Yelena Udy.
Upon becoming ONU chaplain in 1963, Udy sought a way to make the weekly chapel service more appealing to students. He had an idea to start a lecture series in which guest speakers would discuss issues pertaining to the Christianity. When King spoke in Taft Gymnasium, it was under the auspices of this lecture series and the theme “The Christian Faith and Contemporary Problems.”
On Jan. 11, 1968, classes ended at 10 a.m. to allow for students to attend the speech. It is estimated that approximately 4,500 people listened to King that day, 2,500 in Taft and another 2,000 in Lehr Auditorium where the audio from Taft was carried live. CBS-TV recorded the 60-minute speech, and the University used it to produce an album. This recording is available on the ONU website and on ONU’s YouTube channel.
In the turbulent late 1960s, the announcement of King’s visit was not without controversy. Three confirmed death threats were each sent to Ada Mayor Irvin Vandermark, ONU President Samuel Meyer and Udy. The FBI was called in to investigate the threats, and the Ohio National Guard was stationed around Ada the morning of the speech.
In the end, peace prevailed, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic speech at ONU with no issues. It remains one of the most important events in the University’s long and proud history – and a defining moment in the lives of many who witnessed it.
Meet Tad McKillop: artist, sculptor, metallurgist and the crafter of Ohio Northern University’s newest monument – a life-size bronze statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., McKillop has almost 30 years of experience in figurative sculpting and the casting process. His repertoire is varied, from small figures to life-size statues. All of his projects are 100 percent self-made, from clay to casting, crafted in his in-home studio and offsite foundry.