By April C. Armstrong *14
This is the second in a two-part series about the weekend in 1960 when Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in Princeton University Chapel. The previous post addressed alumni reaction to King’s invitation to Princeton’s pulpit. Here, I tell the story of his impact on the students who were there to hear his sermon, with a particular focus on R. Hunter Morey ‘62.
The weekend Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Princeton proved to be a local flashpoint for national conflicts. That month, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 had been the target of a filibuster by Southern lawmakers who claimed the legislation, which aimed to shore up the Civil Rights Act of 1957, infringed on states’ rights. They were especially concerned with maintaining segregation.
The filibuster broke previous records, as segregation-supporting senators held the chamber for 125 hours. The weekend prior to King’s visit to Princeton, Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon brought a petition to end Southern oratory on civil rights to the Senate chamber. His counterpart from Kentucky, Thurston Morton, seized the paper the petition was written on and ripped it to shreds. Although the segregation supporters were outnumbered, they used the Senate rules to prevent voting on the bill. Their use of the quorum call in the middle of the night (which would halt Senate business if a majority were not present), while irritating to their opponents, was not successful in anything other than prolonging the filibuster, because senators had taken to sleeping in their offices to be prepared to return to the chamber instantly.
R. Hunter Morey ’62 was frustrated with the state of affairs and decided to organize a protest. Writing in the Daily Princetonian on March 11, 1960, he asked,
Is he [King] being invited as a status symbol to show how aware we Princetonians are, or is there possibly some genuine concern for the facts of racial inequality, demonstrated by recent discrimination in the South and the segregationists’ filibuster in the Senate[?]
He invited those who felt as he did to picket the local Woolworth’s store the next day.
Woolworth’s was, itself, in the national conversation over civil rights at the time. The Greensboro Sit-Ins had begun in February 1960. They are perhaps the best-known sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, or arguably any activist movement. Four college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University had kickstarted it by vowing to order lunch at Woolworth’s every day and refuse to leave after being denied service. Within days, more than a thousand protesters had joined the “Greensboro Four” at Woolworth’s. The press attention inspired others to join the sit-ins in other locations. Princeton’s Woolworth’s was not segregated, but students took issue with the company itself. They weren’t the only ones to do so in the region; the AFL-CIO also picketed Trenton’s Woolworth’s in early March.
Louis K. Werner ‘61, who participated in the demonstration, explained the motive as threefold:
- To pressure the Woolworth company to desegregate nationwide
- To rouse academia out of its apathy toward segregation
- “To demonstrate that the student body is not politically inarticulate”
The picket signs students made varied. Some simply condemned Jim Crow and segregation. One stood out for its assertion, “I found a million-dollar bigot in a 5 & 10 cent store.”
The event attracted a lot of local attention. After a few hours, religion professor Melvin Diamond joined the protest. However, not everyone was supportive. A mob of people reported in most press to have been high school students attacked picketers, and local police had to come in to disperse them. Other reports asserted that some who resorted to violence had been Southern undergraduates, and later expressed dismay that “the university plans to take no disciplinary action” against three undergraduates identified as having assaulted Diamond and the student protesters. The picketing Princetonians held firm, however, and kept the protest up for the originally planned four hours, wrapping up at 5:00PM.
In the Daily Princetonian, significant disagreements appeared in the letters to the editor over the effectiveness and appropriateness of the demonstration. Some called the picketers “childish.” One self-identified “Southerner” warned that when violence erupts, it frightened white Southerners who were otherwise sympathetic and therefore such protests were counterproductive. Rather than faulting the violent mob, however, the writer blamed the protesters for taking actions that would “antagonize the segregationists.”
Another Southern student, David Armstrong ‘61, took issue with other Southern Princetonians, saying he had seen the effects of discrimination and segregation firsthand, and he did not support it. Thus, he argued, “if this is the Southern way of life, then the hell with it.”
For his part, Diamond praised the protesting students for their restraint when attacked by a mob. He said that the violence that erupted and subsequent police support highlighted the difference between taking such actions in Princeton, and engaging in similar activism in the South, but that having been attacked solidified his position and his view of the courage of African American demonstrators.
King preached to a full Chapel of about 3,500 people the day after the Nassau Street protest, urging understanding and concern for others in order to combat racial hatred. Wisconsin’s Wausau Daily Record-Herald reported on King’s sermon in a larger article about how that weekend had been characterized by racial violence across the country, but the day itself was without notable incident at Princeton. According to a report in the Asbury Park Evening Press, King’s sermon had been about how America’s survival was dependent on people showing concern for one another. “Some of our white brothers are too concerned about perpetuating their preferred economic position and their way of life,” he said, but the Asbury Park paper observed that he did not mention the fight outside Woolworth’s. King instead asserted that no race was superior to another. “Black supremacy is as bad as white supremacy…The responsibility for loving fellow men bears on black as well as white.” He told listeners, “God wants a society where all men can respect each other.”
The Daily Princetonian also covered the sermon, reporting that King had emphasized the need to be willing to allow one’s life to be shortened if this was in favor of more important goals. He urged the audience to put aside self-interest for the good of all, and to focus on the other dimensions of life, especially the “height.” This referred to the need to prioritize one’s discovery of God over longevity.
The following week, Princeton’s Student Christian Association (SCA) organized a prayer vigil in the Chapel in order to express “our Christian concern over racial discrimination in the South and the North.” It was also a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King was chair. Stewart S. Hudnut ‘61, SCA’s president, explained the intent. He thought that SCA had for too long been too passive about the Civil Rights Movement as a matter of policy. “Because of this policy we have rarely seen Princeton undergraduates in active support of any cause, and when we have, it has been only to glimpse with dismay the moving cardboard placards in front of dime stores on Nassau Street.”
More than 150 people attended the event, which raised about $180 for the SCLC (a little over $1,800 in 2023 dollars), but it got very little press. What publicity it did receive frustrated some of the participants, as they were praised for taking a “Christian” approach (i.e., prayers rather than active protest). Donald W. Kramer ‘60 observed in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “The protest held inconspicuously in the Chapel was generally hailed as a respectable action. It seemed for some people that ‘respectability’ was a function of unobtrusiveness and lack of publicity.” Joel Graydon McClellan ‘61, president of the Westminster Foundation at Princeton, also responded to this in a letter to the editor of the Prince. The intent, he said, was to pray for action, and to commit to that action:
As the order of the service will show, these prayers were an acknowledgment of the Christian’s weaknesses and a petition for strength from a divine source for action. Thus the purpose of the service was not an isolated event of pietistic withdrawal, but a supplement to action on the part of concerned people.
Clearly, King’s visit had ripple effects for many in town, but the impact of that weekend may have been more significant for one student than others, who may have been inspired to change his career trajectory after the events of March 1960. Following his impromptu organization of the demonstration outside Woolworth’s (which appears to have been his first activity of that sort), Morey got more heavily involved in social justice causes. At Princeton, he organized the Student Peace Union and the Princeton Civil Liberties Union before his graduation in 1962. After earning his degree, he became a full time civil rights activist, revisiting Princeton in 1964 to raise money in his role as the field worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
After a decade working full time for civil rights for racial minorities, Morey shifted his focus to advancing gay rights in the 1970s and worked on curriculum for San Francisco public schools on human sexuality and AIDS in the 1980s. In the Class of 1962’s 25th reunion book, he wrote that this last phase of his work was done “in a context of human relations/human rights for all…” The 1990s brought much of his prior work together, as Morey was appointed to the NAACP’s National Health Committee to develop better strategies for combating AIDS among African Americans.
I have identified no records that would directly connect the actions Morey took in his career with King’s sermon in Princeton, aside from inspiring the protest he organized. Nonetheless, Morey appears to have lived as King had urged Princetonians to live in that sermon in March 1960, with a focus on the “height” of one’s life, rather than its length–dedicated to the common good, rather than self-interest, even if it cut his life span short. Morey’s death in 1999 was said to have been caused by a heart attack. He was 59 years old.
Class Reunion Books Collection (AC214)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)
For Further Reading:
De Looper, John. “Martin Luther King Jr’s Visits to Princeton.”