A History of Oberlin Activism
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By Eilish Spear / / March 9, 2018 / 6:03pm
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REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR GIVES COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS FOR OBERLIN COLLEGE. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OBERLIN COLLEGE ARCHIVES

The broad-strokes history of Oberlin civil rights activism is well known—it was the first institution to admit African Americans and women, a prominent stop on the underground railroad, and was vigorously involved in the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and more. The specifics of these experiences, however, are harder to find. It is easy to go about day to day life at Oberlin without even considering the movements and leaders that have come out of and been a part of Oberlin’s history. They are nevertheless significant. Oberlin students’ involvement and devotion to civil rights and social justice movements reached historic heights in the middle of the 1960s. Oberlin students were repeatedly arrested in relation to civil rights protests, and the campus climate was explosive. It was in this fiery mix that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the college on several instances between 1957 and 1965. In his commencement speech in 1965, King said of Oberlin, “I can never come to this campus without a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for all that this great institution has done for the cultural, political, and social life of our nation and the world. By all standards of measurement, Oberlin is one of the great colleges, not only of our nation, but of the world.”

On June 11th, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Oberlin’s 132nd Commencement weekend, giving a speech entitled “Remaining Awake Through the Great Revolution.” In the speech, MLK described the danger of failing to be awake to the changes riveting in the world, the danger of missing the “revolution.” Dr. King spoke out against violence, advocating for his famous stance on peaceful resistance, and called for an end to racial segregation, not because it “is sociologically untenable or because it is politically unsound, not merely to meet the communist challenge or to create a good image in the world or to appeal to African and Asian peoples, as important as that happens to be,” he says, but “In the final analysis racial injustice must be uprooted from American society because it is morally wrong.”

King’s speech followed a long period of Oberlin student conversations on the most effective methods of protest and activism, of the merits of the peaceful/non-peaceful possibilities. In an interview with the Oberlin Review in 1998, Professor of Sociology James Walsh said, “When I came here there was a great deal of intellectual discussion. There was a lot of talk about the method of protest - King’s passive resistance vs. violence. This was carefully discussed.”

Dr. King’s commencement visit, his third time at the college, was tinged with a hint of irony. Among the recipients for honorary degrees in 1965, including King, was Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State to President Johnson and a primary figure in the United States continuing conflict in Vietnam. The award prompted widespread outrage across campus, including threats to boycott commencement if Secretary Rusk was not removed from the list of honorees. The threats followed the increasing involvement of Oberlin students in anti-war protests in Oberlin, Cleveland, Washington, and beyond, over the course of the 1960s.

In a point of stark comparison, Dr. King devoted a large portion of his commencement speech to the dangers of isolationism in favor of achieving a global perspective, saying “all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality.” This interrelated nature of reality included the racial segregation in the United States and similar civil rights abuses around the world.

Of Secretary Rusk, however, King said, “I am also deeply honored to share the platform today with so many distinguished citizens of our nation - particularly our great secretary of state who, through dedicated and brilliant service, has carved for himself a niche in the annals of our nation’s history.”

Dr. King’s commencement address in 1965 occurred just eight months after his previous visit to Oberlin in October of 1964, the second public address given after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. To a packed audience of 2,200 students, faculty, and community members in Finney Chapel on October 22nd, Dr. King addressed the upcoming election between Barry Goldwater and LBJ. In a fiery attack on the republican nominee, King exclaimed that Goldwater “threatens the health, morality, and even the survival of this country.” He went on to say that “Goldwater is not a racist himself, but his ideas unfortunately support those who are.” According to archives of the Oberlin Review from the time, King viewed a Goldwater victory as a serious setback in the quest for racial equality and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. King’s support for Lyndon B. Johnson as an alternative to this potential evil was well reviewed by the Oberlin community—striking, for size and frequencies of protests against the administration peaked in the spring of 1965, exemplified by the threatened boycott of commencement and Secretary Rusk.

The frequency of Dr. King’s visits to Oberlin, beginning with an address on peaceful resistance in Finney Chapel in 1957, through his selection as commencement speaker in 1965, exemplified the college’s commitment to and role in the Civil Rights Movement. The activism of the student body continued through his assassination in 1968, to widespread protest throughout the 1970s and 80s and on. Oberlin’s role today as a school of activists has been harshly attacked and problematized in the past few years, with the publication of the infamous New Yorker article “The Big Uneasy” by Nathan Heller, and widespread national press. What role does activism at a small school in Ohio play today, in this era of instant communication and worldwide awareness? Perhaps the circuitous path of activism at Oberlin speaks to Dr. King’s words in Remaining Awake: “Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively.”

Contact contributing writer Eilish Spear at espear@oberlin.edu.