activist Sonia Sanchez speaks during Wesleyan’s Celebration of the Life of
Martin Luther King Jr. event Jan. 30 in Memorial Chapel.
Poet Delivers Keynote Address at Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration
author and civil rights activist Sonia Sanchez delivered the keynote address
during Wesleyan’s Celebration of the Life of Martin Luther King Jr. event
Jan. 30. She met King in 1957 and shared excerpts of King’s speeches with an
over-flowing audience in Memorial Chapel.
Often in poetic rhythm, Sanchez spoke about her own life and the troubles
she and her family faced as being poor, black Americans. She emphasized her
years in New York City, and explained her struggle for identity. She talked
about her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. She shared her opinions
on war and offered advice to the students.
“My brothers, my sisters. This is your century. Demand that this world moves
forward in peace,” she said. “This is your country. This is your time. …
Learn what it means to walk upright as a human being in the 21st century.
What does it mean to be human? You got to ask yourself that question.”
addition to Sanchez’s talk, Ruby-Beth Buitekant ’09 and Melanye Price,
assistant professor of government, offered a reflection; The Roadside Girls
(pictured at right) and Ebony Singers provided song, and Kevin Butler,
associate dean of Student Services, welcomed the audience.
Following an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Wesleyan Baccalaureate
Address June 7, 1964, President Doug Bennet delivered remarks on King Jr.’s
history with Wesleyan.
To chronicle King’s visits, Bennet and staff consulted with several people
who were part of the King era at Wesleyan and wanted to share their
memories. Bennet thanked John Maguire, formerly a professor of religion at
Wesleyan and president emeritus of the Claremont Graduate Schools; Willard
McRae, an administrator at Middlesex Memorial Hospital, frequent adviser,
and guide to Wesleyan students volunteering in Middletown; and Rick Tuttle,
‘62 who was a civil rights volunteer in Mississippi and Georgia in the
summer of 1963.
The Wesleyan connection with King began when John Maguire joined the
Religion Department at Wesleyan in 1960. As an 18-year-old student in
Virginia, Maguire had by chance met and become a close friend of the
then-21-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. who was studying at Crozer
Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. During the late 1950’s, King had begun
coming to New England to speak and raise money for the civil rights
movement. When he arrived at Bradley airport, Maguire, who was by then
studying at Yale, would pick him up and drive him to his speaking
These weren’t King’s first visits to Connecticut. When he was 16, after his
first year at Morehouse College, he spent a summer working in the tobacco
fields near Hartford. He came north for the good pay and the chance to
observe race relations in New England. King later reflected that he was
elated to find that he could sit anywhere in a restaurant and order food.
In May, 1961, Maguire and his department chair, David Swift, joined the
Freedom Riders. They were jailed briefly in Montgomery, and later met with
King. Maguire invited King to preach at Wesleyan, and arranged it so that
King’s first visit to campus. On Jan. 14, 1962, King preached to an
overflowing chapel. He stayed overnight at the university guesthouse on High
Street in order to be available most of the next day to the College of
Social Studies students and faculty.
In February of 1963, King preached at Yale’s Battell Chapel in the morning,
got a ride from Maguire to his house at 44 Home Avenue, took a brief a nap,
then preached again that evening in the Wesleyan chapel.
Early in 1964 President Victor Butterfield asked Professor Maguire to see if
King would be willing to be Wesleyan’s end-of-school Baccalaureate preacher
and to receive the university’s honorary doctorate degree. King agreed, but
said that he had to make it tentative since he was not always sure of his
Then, on the Monday before he was to arrive for the weekend ceremonies, King
went to jail challenging segregation in St. Augustine, Fla. Maguire and
King’s chief aide, Andrew Young persuaded King to post bail on Saturday
afternoon and fly to Bradley, arriving early Sunday morning.
Following his baccalaureate address, Maguire presented King with his degree
and they stood while the crowd gave King a long, standing ovation. As they
made their way from the platform back to North College, there was continuous
applause. On Monday, King flew back to St. Augustine and reentered jail for
another few days.
In 1966, King paid his last visit to Wesleyan, again to preach at McConaughy
Hall. The audience overflowed.
The Wesleyan Board of Trustees was meeting on the weekend following King’s
death in 1968. President Ted Etherington asked the meeting to adjourn early
the morning after the assassination and move to the Chapel where he asked
John Maguire to provide an informal eulogy for King.
“The Wesleyan community has continued its commitment to civil rights and
justice,” Bennet said. “Poet Sonia Sanchez keynote embodies that tradition.”
The Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration received funding from the Office
of the Dean of the College, the President's Office, and the Office of
Affirmative Action, with planning and support from a committee of staff,
students and faculty.
By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection
editor and Elan Barnehama, university writer