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King and Kingman

In June 1964, when the news came out that Martin Luther King Jr. had been bailed out of jail to receive an honorary degree at Yale, the Minneapolis Tribune editorialized on “Yale’s Good Example.” The Hartford Courant declared that “it was a good day for the Rev. Martin Luther King. It was an even better day for Yale.” But the Danville (Virginia) Register warned of grim consequences “when Yale upholds a petty criminal,” and the Charleston News and Courier labeled King the “Doctor of Terror.”

Alumni opinion was also divided. Kingman Brewster, who was navigating his first commencement as Yale’s president, had two form letters for his response. One was a brief paragraph of thanks: “As you may imagine, there are many of our brethren who are outraged by this act, so your time and trouble to let us know of your approval is much appreciated.”


“Our educational as well as moral obligation is to reaffirm the ideals we believe in.”

The other was a full page defending the Corporation’s decision. First, Brewster wrote, “our educational as well as moral obligation is to reaffirm the ideals we believe in.” Second, he argued that “the effort to cure racial injustice should not be allowed to fester into a war between the races. Therefore it is especially important for the institutional symbols of white privilege to let it be known that they share this cause.”

It was not King’s first experience of Connecticut. As he traveled north from his jail cell in St. Augustine, Florida, where he had been held for protesting the city’s segregation policies, King may have reflected on his earlier visits to the state. At 16, he had spent a summer working in the tobacco fields near Hartford; he had just completed his freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and he had come north for the good pay and the chance to observe race relations in New England. King had been elated to find that he could sit anywhere in a restaurant and order food.

Then, in 1959, after two years as founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King had spoken at Yale at the invitation of a new Undergraduate Lecture Committee. Its mission, as expressed by Frank Altschul '08, was to ensure “that in these troubled times the Yale community should be directly exposed to the views of individuals prominently identified with one or the other of the burning questions of the day.” King had spoken in Woolsey Hall before a large audience, half town and half gown. Dare to be “maladjusted,” he urged his hearers: “I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.”

King received his honorary doctorate on June 15, 1964, along with Averell Harriman, Philip Jessup, Sargent Shriver Jr. '38, '41LLB, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne. It was a beautiful and peaceful day. The text of King’s citation ran:

As your eloquence has kindled the nation’s sense of outrage, so your steadfast refusal to countenance violence in resistance to injustice has heightened our sense of national shame. When outrage and shame together shall one day have vindicated the promise of legal, social, and economic opportunity for all citizens, the gratitude of peoples everywhere and of generations of Americans yet unborn will echo our admiration as we proudly confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws.

It was on this day, also, that Brewster broke with academic tradition by advising the honorees, not that they had earned “the rights and privileges” of the Yale degree, but that they had earned its “rights and responsibilities.”

King received the Nobel Peace Prize later in 1964. He was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The day after the funeral, Brewster announced a new Yale commitment “to do more about discrimination, poverty, poor education, [and] poor housing” in New Haven. He also pledged to work directly with the city’s African American leadership and established a Council on Community Affairs.

In February 1969, Coretta Scott King, the reverend’s widow, came to Yale as the first Frances Blanshard Fellow, to meet with women graduate students and deliver a lecture in Woolsey Hall. In her talk, she underscored the importance of university involvement in community affairs and declared that campus unrest brings progress. Mrs. King also recalled the couple’s last visit to Yale in June 1964. “Even as you honored him, law officials in St. Augustine, Florida, waited for his return,” she noted. “He had come here on bail.” During her visit, Dwight Hall volunteers circulated petitions asking Congress to declare King’s birthday a national holiday.  the end


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