In 1996, the Cornell Report published an article on famous visitors to the campus. Included was this section on Civil Rights Leaders.
Click the button below to read the section about MLK. Click the image to read the entire article.
Article written by former archivist Michelle Holschuh Simmons for the Cornellian in 2002.
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Ink Pond article for the Cornellian
Michelle Holschuh Simmons
Consulting Librarian for the Arts & Humanities and College Archivist
On October 15, 1962, nearly a year before the rest of the country heard his rousing adaptation of a Negro spiritual, Dr. Martin Luther King closed his speech to the Cornell College community at King Chapel with "Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!" As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 21st and Black History Month in February, we might reflect on a few of the many civil rights leaders who have inspired the Cornell community with their visits to campus.
From its very inception as an institution of higher learning, Cornell has brought to campus world-renowned civil rights leaders. In 1859, even before the Civil War and only a few years after Cornell was founded, Frederick Douglass visited campus. Described as a "tornado of power" and a "polished orator" by a Cornell student, Frederick Douglass conferred with President Samuel Fellows about the injustices of slavery.
Then on a Friday evening in January, 1900, Booker T. Washington came to Cornell to deliver his address entitled "Negro Problem in the South" to a packed auditorium of students and faculty members. The author of the Jan. 20, 1900, Cornell ian article that chronicled his visit reported that "seldom has a lecturer at Cornell been greeted with so large an audience," and that the "attentive" and "appreciative" crowd interrupted Washington frequently with "hearty applause."
In his introduction of Washington, Frank Armstrong (class of 1900), one of the first African-American students to graduate from Cornell, dubbed Washington the "Moses of our Race" and added that "Christian education is the only,means of improving the negro's condition." Armstrong made such a positive impression on Washington that he later became the prominent intellectual's personal assistant.
Then in 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited campus and delivered a lengthy address at King Chapel. Central to King's speech were two myths about the process of getting rid of racism that he debunked: the myth of time and the myth of education. He argued that neither time nor education alone will improve the situation of African-Americans. Instead, he claimed, legislation is imperative in the attainment of equal rights.
With consistent references to the Bible and to the works of philosophers such as William James and Aristotle, King argued that non-violent means are the most effective way of effecting widespread change. Regarding non-violent methods, King stated, "It leaves an opponent frustrated and disarmed, and he is finally glutted with his own barbarity." King also argued that it is fear that keeps the races apart. He told the Cornell audience, "I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't communicate with each other, and they don't communicate with each other because they are separated from each other."
Among the other notable African-Americans who have visited Cornell are W.E.B. Dubois in 1905 and Jesse Jackson in 1987. Cornell's tradition of attention to human rights remains strong still today, with noted scholar Cornel West visiting just last year.