By April C. Armstrong *14
This is the first in a two-part series about the weekend in 1960 when Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in Princeton University Chapel. This post considers alumni reaction to the news that he would appear on campus, while the next will focus on students’ experiences that weekend.
In 1958, the Dean of Princeton University Chapel, Ernest Gordon, invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to its pulpit. King was already nationally-known at the time for leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, ultimately resulting in the Supreme Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregation on public transit was unconstitutional. As King was a polarizing figure, the invitation Gordon issued was controversial, and the hostility toward King within society at large ended up delaying his arrival. King’s planned appearance was announced publicly just after a woman stabbed King at a book-signing event in Harlem, and King’s appearance ultimately had to be rescheduled for March 1960 to allow him to recover.
Many people said they were dismayed that Gordon would issue such an invitation. Southern alumni wrote privately and publicly about their disapproval, both in 1958 and in 1960. In the Shreveport News for March 26, 1960, John Temple Graves, Class of 1915, wrote that it was “shocking” that such a thing would happen
in the false name of peace when negro youths all over the South and nation are being herded by him [King] and his professional crowd into law-breaking aggressions and demonstrations which are a thousand miles from peace–and from the Princeton spirit of fair play, the Princeton devotion to law, the American way, the Constitution, and the true hope of Negro advancement.
It was not academic liberty. It was a taking of sides.
Several other letters sent to Princeton University president Robert Goheen decried King’s methods of activism, especially his encouragement of breaking laws, and said this disqualified him as a spiritual leader. For example, Douglas V. N. Parsons ‘38 wrote, “Christ never broke any laws to teach Christian standards of morality or justice…” Parsons also said he was afraid of the ultimate outcome of the Civil Rights Movement. “I am concerned over discrimination in favor of Negroes and get the impression that this is occurring in high and unnatural places.”
Threats to withhold donations typically accompanied the angry letters. Edward Jackson, Class of 1927, wrote to ask that he be permanently removed from any communications from Princeton University in the future. He noted that he was writing to other alumni to encourage them to also cut Princeton off.
Not all Southern alumni agreed, however. Roland M. Frye ‘43 wrote to Goheen from Atlanta, where he was then teaching at Emory University. Frye, who was originally from Alabama, said he was “distressed” at the attitudes being expressed by other Alabama alumni.
Gordon’s invitation to King strikes me as being timely, appropriate and praiseworthy… But of course there are many who would object to inviting Isaiah (if he were available) into a modern pulpit, and I suspect that our general inclination would be to re-enact Golgotha if we were given the opportunity to do so without seeming too ill-bred.
Goheen sought to appease all sides, emphasizing the freedom of religion in the Chapel and freedom of speech in general on campus. In many of the letters he sent to angry alumni, Goheen wrote, “I quite understand the concern which you feel about this particular invitation. Dr. King is to many people a highly controversial figure, and I do not propose to defend him for his politics.” Goheen emphasized that King would preach a sermon, not give a political speech, and that the sermon had been delayed for two years, so its occurrence at a particularly heightened time of unrest was just a coincidence.
This did not satisfy all who received his messages. Barlow Henderson, Class of 1925, wrote back decrying “a crusading radicalism” that was taking over Princeton in light of this response, and that if Henderson had a son, he would encourage him to attend college elsewhere. G. Wallace Jarman, Class of 1915, wrote that Goheen’s approach was “timid acquiescence” to the Chapel’s dean and not in keeping with Princeton history.
In spite of the expressed disapproval from many alumni, however, King still came to campus, with an impact sized to match the attention his invitation had garnered. Whatever alumni thought of Princeton’s stance on the appropriateness of King’s appearance on campus, they were correct to see it as a moment of heightened significance, as transitions were taking place between a Princeton where racial prejudice had a comfortable home and one that sought to chart a new, more inclusive course. The next post in this series will continue this story with a focus on how students and other local residents responded to King’s appearance in town and the impact the weekend had on the life of one member of the Class of 1962.
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
For Further Reading:
De Looper, John. “Martin Luther King Jr’s Visits to Princeton.”