By PJ Williams
On a sweltering September day in 1965, a gathering of over 500 students, faculty members, administrators and members of the press, assembled in Dinneen Auditorium in Saint Peter’s College (now University) in Jersey City to hear a Baptist minister from Georgia talk about his vision for America’s future. He was working toward dismantling legislation and an ideology he viewed as evil, one which prevented black Americans from being equal to their white brothers and sisters. His Christian faith was the impetus for his non-violent fight for social justice through civil disobedience. This man was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was invited to speak at Saint Peter’s Michaelmas Convocation by the board of trustees, with the main push coming from Fr. Victor Yanitelli, SJ, the president at the time. Held at the beginning of the school year, the Michaelmas Convocation is an annual celebration honoring student and faculty with awards as well as featuring a guest speaker.
The story of how Dr. King arrived on the Saint Peter’s campus began long before that warm September morning. Saint Peter’s had invited Dr. King to speak two years earlier, but due to his busy schedule he was unable to speak at the college until 1965. By the time that Dr. King was finally able to speak, much had happened. He had delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, which resonated with millions of Americans working towards equality. In 1964, he had become the youngest person to receive a Nobel Prize for his work in the American Civil Rights Movement. And earlier in 1965 he led a march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in support of African American voting rights.
Saint Peter’s awarded Dr. King with an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws and Letters. After receiving the honorary degree, Dr. King spoke on the evils of inequality and how segregation was in opposition of democracy. Additionally, he talked about how all men were created equally by God but were still not treated as such. While legislative changes were an important component for civil rights, they could not change people’s minds about race. Despite this, he was hopeful for the future. “Although some will be scarred, lose jobs and be called bad names, our problems will be solved. We shall overcome,” Dr. King said. He underscored his speech by reaffirming the need to combat these social evils through non-violent measures.
Saint Peter’s was the only Jesuit school to award Dr. King an honorary doctorate. Today, people know how history unfolded and how Dr. King’s contributions shaped America. At the time this was not the case. “There is a line from the documentary Citizen King that captures this well, ‘its easier to build a monument than a movement,’” said Anna Brown, associate professor and chair of political science and director of the social justice program at Saint Peter’s University. “Although today we have a national holiday…at the time he was kind of a controversial figure.”
The Jesuits of Saint Peter’s recognized the significance of what Dr. King was doing and wanted to stand with him in support of his cause. Fr. Edmund G. Ryan, SJ, academic dean at Saint Peter’s College wrote a letter in which he praised Dr. King’s spiritual principals. In his conclusion he stated, “I have taken a position in this case and am quite proud of it and believe that it is according to the best traditions of Saint Peter’s College, the Jesuit Order, and the Roman Catholic Church.”
Jerome Gillen, a history professor at Saint Peter’s University, was a senior at Saint Peter’s College when Dr. King came to speak at the Michaelmas Convocation. Gillen recalled how in 1965 the student body was mostly Catholic white men who were the first in their family to attend college. “Today it’s still mostly first generation college students, but with 64 different countries represented. We have great ethnic diversity now,” said Gillen.
Today, Saint Peter’s serves its student population by caring for and nourishing their unique gifts and abilities. A variety of programs help students in need, including The Center for Undocumented Students as well as tutoring, and outreach programs for different groups. But a part of caring for a person is teaching them that they have to give back and care for others as well. “Saint Peter’s, faculty, staff, and administration are all committed to the work of social justice,” said Brown.
Fifty years ago, Saint Peter’s honored Dr. King, whose faith had moved him to do great things. The administration recognized his achievements and instilled in its students a desire to take a stance for justice. Today, Saint Peter’s continues this philosophy and educates students to serve as men and women for others.
Images and archived documents used in the article were provided by Saint Peter’s University archivist, Mary Kinahan-Ockay.