Seated in the photo up top here is Rev. Martin Luther King, whose holiday we celebrate every January. He was just 30 years old on that Sunday in May of 1959 when he traveled to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to give the commencement address at Maryland State College.
Today, of course, that institution is better known as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The college graduated just 53 students that day, but the ceremony drew an overflow audience of more than 1,000 to the Kiah Gymnasium on campus in Princess Anne, Md. Rev. King was already well established on the national stage by then–this was four years after the Montgomery bus boycott campaign.
No recordings of the speech he gave that day survive. He didn’t use any notes. The only newspaper coverage that I know of is a short report by the Salisbury Daily Times.
• This “is an age filled with hope,” Rev. King said, “an age when a new world order is being born.”
• He ticked off an array of crises and wars unfolding around the world, then said, “The present tensions represent the usual pains accompanying anything new. [They] are indicative of the fact that the old world order is passing away.”
• He traced the history of slavery in America. He discussed how the service of black soldiers in two world wars had changed attitudes in the black community, bringing to the forefront the question of when the country those men had fought for would live up to its ideals.
• He challenged students to strive for excellence in their chosen careers.
Over on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore website is a story with memories from four students who graduated that day.
A few highlights.
• After greeting Dr. King onstage while accepting his diploma, Charles Laws had this thought: “I’ll never wash this hand again.”
• Ossie Goods Clay was struck by the fact Rev. King was “such a small man,” at 5 feet, 7 inches tall. He had seemed so much bigger on TV.
• Betty Pinckett Mitchell said that even after the passage of decades, “I can still hear the sound of his voice. … When he spoke, it did something to your body.”
• Ossie Goods Clay recalled one line from the speech that helped inspired her time and again in the years that followed: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
The UMES website includes a few photos of Rev. King’s visit to campus. You can see those below.
Five years after Rev. King’s visit, UMES students were at the forefront of a campaign to finally bring an end to segregation in Princess Anne and Somerset County. There were marches and sit-ins. There was violence, too. On at least one occasion, police officers used nightsticks, fire hoses, and dogs to break up a protest. Fifty-seven UMES students ended up getting treated for injuries in the school infirmary after that incident, 14 of them with dog bites.
Looking through the old newspaper articles about those protests, I found myself thinking that every January when MLK rolls around, I should think of it not just as a tribute to one man, but also as a day that honors the bravery of all the people he helped inspire to step up in that fight against segregation, including, of course, those UMES students in Princess Anne.
–posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore on Jan. 1, 2024. All rights reserves.
• NOTE: Here is the link to the full story UMES did about those students’ memories of Dr. King’s commencement address. The photos here are from the UMES website as well.
• A couple of more photos below. Thank you so much for spending time with this story and on this site!