A look back at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic address at Queens College

Photo by Irv Steinfink, The Phoenix, Queens College student newspaper, May 18, 1965.

Queens College is commemorating the life of civil rights leader and activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, Jan. 20. 

Dr. King spoke at Queens College on May 13, 1965, less than a year after Queens College student Andrew Goodman was murdered in Mississippi alongside two other Civil rights activists by members of the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer 1964.

“As we observe the upcoming holiday in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we at Queens College are inevitably reminded of the personal connection we have to the fallen civil rights leader and the movement he led,” Queens College Interim President William Tramontano said in his statement honoring Dr. King.

In his 40-minute address he gave at Queens College on May 13, 1965, Dr. King acknowledged Goodman’s activism in galvanizing support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I certainly stand here,” King said, “under the inspiration of the fact that it was Queens College that gave to America, and indeed to the world, Andrew Goodman, whose creative witness will certainly live for generations yet unborn. He, along with others, paid the supreme price for this struggle and I’m sure that we will see in many ways that his death was not in vain.” 

The spirit of King’s crusade lives on at Queens College, Tramontano said, in the persons of individuals who, like Goodman, were part of it. 

Artifacts of their participation can be found in the Queens College Civil Rights Archives, which include those of Rabbi Moshe Shur, who is leading a group of Queens College students on a tour of significant sites in the Civil Rights Movement as part of the annual In the Footsteps of Dr. King program. An ever-present reminder greets all on campus each day when bells toll the beginning of each hour from the library’s Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Clocktower.

Dr. King’s address was delivered as the first in a series of John F. Kennedy Memorial Lectures, honoring another important leader recently felled by an assassin’s bullet. Part lecture, part sermon, it reflected on the entirety of the struggle of African-Americans for racial equality in their country post slavery.

“Because of the lack of educational opportunities, because of discrimination and because of the denial of apprenticeship training,” observed King, “we as a people have been limited to unskilled or semi-skilled labor, not because we didn’t have the ability to do the job but because opportunities denied us the training to do them.”

Further, he warned, “Poverty, ignorance, disease, social isolation, economic deprivation breed crime, whatever the racial group may be. Criminal responses are environmental and not racial. It is a tortuous logic to use the tragic results of segregation as an argument for the continuation of it. It is necessary to go back to the causal root and grapple with that. If our nation is to grow and develop, we must see this in a real way.”

 Yet, in the face of the harsh realities presented to his congregation that day, ever the Baptist minister, King offered direction, saying, “you love every man not because you like him, not because his ways appeal to you, but as theologians would say, ‘because God loves him.’ You rise to the level of loving the person who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. You resist the evil with all of your might and all of the strength that you can muster. You maintain this active good will knowing that hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”

 And, ever a man of faith, he parted on that historic day at Queens College with, “I still have faith in the future. However dark the night, however dreary the day, I still believe that we shall overcome.”

“Today, almost 55 years later, we honor his memory and continue to pursue the dream of a better and more just society for all of its members,” Tramontano said.