Archivist’s Angle: Martin Luther King, Jr. at NYU A Catalyst for Change
January 15, 2021
By Julianna Monjeau (CAS '09)
February 11 marks 60 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited NYU and delivered a passionate speech on “The Future of Integration” and the importance of non-violent protest. On that day in 1961, he spoke to a packed audience in the Hall of Fame Playhouse at the former University Heights Campus in the Bronx.
During a three-hour visit, he told the crowd, “I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob-rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation, to economic conditions which take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.”
King also pleaded for national support and active participation from his supporters, and asserted, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” King received a positive and energetic response from the crowd. “King’s Sovereignty,” an editorial in the NYU Heights Daily News, reported, “No recent visitor to the Heights received the tumultuous reception we gave Dr. King. No one stirred our conscience, penetrated our lethargy, and fired our idealism as much as he.”
Though King’s visit in 1961 was an inspiration to the student body, it wasn’t until his assassination seven years later that the NYU administration began to actively mobilize against institutionalized racism. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and the next morning an impromptu memorial service was held in NYU’s Gould Memorial Chapel. The chapel was nearly filled to capacity, with students crowding along the rear walls, and was attended by the University President, James M. Hester, and other members of the University administration. President Hester spoke at the service and declared that a “courageous, noble, and dedicated man was killed last night and such a horror sickens us. There are too few men who have had the vision and courage that this man had. We have lost a national hero, a man who staked his life for his beliefs.”
On Wednesday, April 10, the University administration cancelled all classes for both the University Heights and Washington Square campuses and organized an all-day symposium in which students discussed the problem of racism and proposed solutions within the institution. A rally was also held in Washington Square Park by the Interfaith Council of NYU to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Congress, a civil rights organization of which King was president and chair until his death.
After the symposium, NYU quickly mobilized to combat racism within the University and to provide additional services to minority students. On April 12, the University Senate adopted a five-point program that called for an immediate increase in the recruitment of African American and other minority students and faculty; a million dollar Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Fund; and the strengthening of academic services to African American students. The Senate also endorsed the establishment of courses dealing with the history, culture, and current affairs of African Americans and an institute in honor of King. This led to the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Afro-American Student Center, which was ultimately maintained by an independent board of African American students and faculty. The Afro-American Studies Institute, which hosted a series of programs, lectures, workshops, and conferences on African American culture, was founded in the year after King’s death and is now the Institute of African American Affairs.
This article first appeared in NYU Alumni Connect in January 2011 and has been updated accordingly.