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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits to the Hill

Dr. King in front of the Straight

Dr. King (second from left) in front of the Straight.Provided

Among the thousands of documents in the archives of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change is a yellowed paper listing the people who had breakfast with the legendary civil rights leader on Sunday, November 13, 1960. It bears fifteen names—all of them Cornell students who had the good fortune to share a meal at the Statler Hotel with one of the most prominent and beloved figures in American history. “I was very impressed, and I think the other people who were there were similarly impressed,” one of those students, Paul Marantz ’62, reflected in his diary a few days later. “He spoke to us about the use of nonviolence . . . [and] appeared dedicated, capable, and patient.”

Paul Marantz '62

Paul Marantz ’621962 Cornellian

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Inevitably, that milestone will spur a national reflection on his life and legacy—but few people, even many Cornellians, may realize that among the hundreds of speeches and appearances that King made during his lifetime are two visits to the Hill. In November 1960, he delivered a Sunday sermon in Sage Chapel; the following April, he was the featured speaker at a civil rights fundraiser in Bailey Hall. “The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others,” King said on that first visit, speaking from the Sage pulpit to an overflowing crowd. “And I submit to you this morning that an individual hasn’t begun to live unless he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Harry Edwards '62

Harry Edwards ’621962 Cornellian

Another alum who attended the Statler breakfast, Harry Edwards ’62, had the chance to spend more one-on-one time with King as one of his student escorts. Recalling those interactions more than a half-century later, he says King had a profound impact on him. “It was everything about him—his entire demeanor, his brilliance, his achievements,” says Edwards. “So much so that when he left campus, I revisited my goals and started applying to divinity school.” Though Edwards later chose to study law, King’s words still echoed; they spurred him to excel in his career, which included a position as the first African American faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School and a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. King, Edwards says, “gave great strength to lots of black people to understand our place in this country and this world. He caused a lot of us to step up our game—because the more of us that succeed, the more there will be to help open doors for those behind them.”

On the Sage Chapel wall, above the pulpit where King spoke so many decades ago, hangs a plaque commemorating his appearance—as well as one by his father, Martin Luther King Sr., who delivered a sermon there two decades later. The plaque was installed in 2007, in an event that included a speech by Dorothy Cotton, a fellow civil rights leader who worked with King for more than a decade. “Many people associate the civil rights movement with great suffering and sadness,” Cotton said. “However, from another perspective, that earth-changing movement gave millions a new reason to live.”