The morning of Sunday, April 16, 1961 a plane landed at Bradley Field (now Bradley International Airport), and a passenger from Atlanta, GA disembarked for a destination a bit further north. Just a few hours later, the preacher and activist, Martin Luther King Jr., ascended the pulpit at Helen Hills Hills Chapel and gave a version of his sermon titled, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Afterward, King had lunch and met with students in an informal reception at Cushing House to answer more questions.
The story of King’s visit begins in 1959 with correspondence between Lawrence DeBoer, Richard P. Unsworth, and David King, the chaplains of Williams, Smith and Amherst colleges. Capitalizing on student interest in his social activism and charismatic preaching abilities, all three were keen to have King come speak on their campus. Correspondence in the Student Religious Organization Association records documents the conversation between King’s office and the chaplains. The Smith student newspaper, the Sophian described Dr. King as “possibly the most sought after speaker in the United States today.” [April 13, 1961] After numerous attempts, April 16-17, 1961 was confirmed as the weekend date for his trip to western Massachusetts.
King arrived at Smith the morning of April 16th, then traveled to Williamstown to preach and visit with the students at Williams. He returned to Amherst the next morning, where students welcomed him on the Amherst College campus. His visit resonated with so many students, that the chaplain’s wanted King to return to the Valley the following year. In his May 3, 1961 reply, he stated, “…Since many colleges have been writing me that I have not had an opportunity to serve, I feel something of a moral obligation to accept some of them before returning to schools that I have already visited…In light of the foregoing, I will have to reluctantly decline your invitation for next year.” King returned to the Valley in October 1963 to preach in the Gettell Ampitheater at Mount Holyoke College. Seven years after his first visit to the Valley, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
If you were present at the chapel service, or were part of the discussion after lunch and have memories of Dr. King’s visit to share, the Smith College Archives would be happy to learn more from you!