On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, we look back to April 5, 1968 when MIT mourned Dr. King and called the campus to act for racial justice.
The April 9, 1968 issue of the MIT student newspaper The Tech reported on a special memorial service for the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. at 12:10 PM on April 5th the day after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. King was a prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was known for his use of nonviolent civil disobedience. King’s tragic death, at the age of 39, shocked, saddened, and enraged people around the world. How did the MIT campus respond?
Tech reporter Steve Carhart (Class of 1970, SM 1972) stated that the event was “hastily organized” by “an ad hoc group of faculty, students and members of the administration” and seven speakers spoke to the nearly filled Kresge Auditorium. Carhart wrote that “MIT President Howard W. Johnson opened the meeting, then the other six read excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches.” The article quotes brief remarks made by the last speaker, MIT Professor Harold Isaacs, who had been a friend of Dr. King. The impromptu memorial was not recorded, as far as we know, but some documents were found in the IASC.
In the Office of the President and Office of the Chairman of the Corporation records of Howard W. Johnson, there are prepared remarks by Johnson and Isaacs and excerpts, without citations, of King’s speeches assigned to five of the speakers (AC-0118, box 198, folder 6 “King, Martin Luther, 1968-1976”).
According to the list in AC-0118 and the story in The Tech, the speakers were as follows:
1. President Howard W. Johnson
2. Mr. Robert Tinker (PhD 1970)
3. Mr. Gustave M. Solomons, Class of 1928
4. Mr. Stephen E. Straus, Class of 1968
5. Miss Maria L. Kivisild, Class of 1969, (no assigned reading found in AC-0118)
6. Prof. Willard R. Johnson
7. Prof. Harold R. Isaacs
Only Willard Johnson and Maria Kivisild (now Ogrydziak) are still living. Johnson is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the Institute. Ogrydziak, the first woman president of the MIT Undergraduate Association, is an architect in California.
In his prepared remarks, President Johnson said King’s life and example called “for a self-searching response from all of us, as individuals, as institutions and as a nation.” Isaacs said: “The bullet that felled Martin Luther King came out of … the madness of racism … that we all share in some way or other” and he closed with: “The question is what we do about it, each one of us beginning with himself.”
An editorial in the same issue of The Tech also called for action. The editorial “Apathy, the students and Dr. King”, appears to paraphrase a quote from a King speech read by Gus Solomons at Kresge. The source for both is very likely King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“. The Tech editorial likens “‘white moderates, who would rather have peace and security than justice'” to MIT students who “would much rather have ‘peace and security’ inside the confines of this institution than work for justice outside the boundaries of the campus.” The editorial suggests that a recent ruling ending graduate student draft deferments from the Vietnam War would end complacency and force classmates “to fight (in one sense or another) for what he believes in.”
The Tech archives and other MIT publications, Institute records and faculty papers in the IASC document how the MIT community reacted first to Martin Luther King’s death, and then responded in the months and years after April 4, 1968 to Dr. King’s challenge to build the beloved community of equity, diversity, inclusion and justice.