By Moses Laguerre
Next time you’re dragging your feet to a class at the May Street building and wondering what your professor did to be assigned to one of those classrooms, stop and think to yourself this: my story is being woven into history right now. It might bring a sense of excitement or perhaps even a sense of responsibility.
Were you aware that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on Worcester State’s May Street Building? Furthermore, while there, did you know he said, “I feel like I’m coming home.”
Yes, you read it right: King called the New England states “home,” and he once gave a speech at the Temple Emanuel Sinai, now WSU’s May Street Building. WSU Urban Studies professor, Dr. Thomas Conroy, believes it was almost like a dress rehearsal for the “I Have a Dream speech.”
“There are some turns of phrase that are the same,” Conroy said. “Sometimes I get the impression that he’s working out these ideas and the public delivery of those ideas. By the time he gets to ‘I Have a Dream’ in 1963, a lot of that phraseology is tested and the delivery perfected so that that speech becomes one of the most important and memorable in American history.”
In the opening lines of the Worcester speech King is quoted as saying, “Whenever I return to the New England states I never feel like a stranger.”
King was invited by the public affair department of WTAG News to take part in a speaker series which was an open community forum discussion, and was hosted by Temple Emanuel Sinai. King was introduced by then-Rabbi Joseph Klein. King gave his speech on March 13, 1961, two years before his “I Have a Dream” speech, and addressed race relations in America and the overall consciousness of the nation. Throughout his speech, King illustrated the different positions one can take regarding race relations.
“I think discussing race in a way that’s authentic and respectful goes a long way toward building cultural competence and the empathy necessary to make change in the world,” Conroy said. “We tend to shy away from that discussion.”
This month marks the 58th anniversary of the Worcester speech. The Temple Emanuel Sinai location on May Street was purchased by WSU in 2012, forever tying the school to the Civil Rights Movement.
William Melendez, a computer science major and a first-year student at WSU, was surprised to hear about this part of the school’s history.
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” he said. “I think that’s really cool, especially how it happened on our campus.”
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in Washington DC in 1963, is one of his most acclaimed moments, and many of the lines King used in the Worcester speech were later reused to address the country at large.
For example, King concluded the “I Have a Dream” speech by saying, “That day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
The May Street Speech ends almost identically. This closing statement had become somewhat of a staple for King, almost a signature way of ending his speeches.
While the Worcester speech also addressed race relations, the speech seems less formal. Almost like a rough draft for something not yet edited. The Worcester speech lacks the flair of the “I Have a Dream” speech. This earlier speech can be viewed as a small chapter in the book that will eventually become the Civil Rights Movement. Almost like the calm before the storm.
The “I Have a Dream Speech” is a call to arms, the gathering of troops, the climax of the story. The “I Have a Dream” speech is the fight at the door of racism and the fight for human decency. The honesty King displays in the Worcester Speech, combined with the strength of King’s desire for a fair world for all gives the “I Have a Dream” speech the foundation it will need to stand the test of time.
In the second part of his community discussion in Worcester, King showed a more witty side of himself, giving the listener a real glimpse into his personality: one of confidence and swagger. History paints King in a pacifistic light for his nonviolent approach to the the Civil Rights Movement. King’s ability to articulate himself made his words more impactful than any punch he could throw. In the second part of King’s Worcester speech he displays this ability. He gives the listener an image of a fighter, a fighter who knew his strength was in words not in violence. It is possible that King never saw violence as a solution for his movement to be built upon.
Though King criticized former U.S presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, his remarks are never seen as malicious. King never questions each president’s nature. In fact, he sees them as good men. Instead King questions their ability and the actions each takes in the fight for Civil Rights.
King addressed many points about the differences between truths and facts and how certain facts can be twisted in a negative way. There is a recurring theme in King’s Worcester speech about how, although we have made progress, we still have a long way to go. We must first ask ourselves this question: has any real progress been made?
There are many things an individual can take from listening to this speech. Especially from an educator’s standpoint.
“It’s like when you give your first lesson and things never go as smoothly as you would hope,” Conroy said. “It’s kind of bumpy, but over time, as you keep teaching, the delivery gets better.”
Dr. Conroy also described a fear that most people share today regarding rights.
“I’d rather see the inequality addressed when people are in school by ensuring that all students can access the education they need to succeed in a 21st century economy,” he said. “Will that fix everything? No. The solution to this question, and the bigger issue of race in America, requires more than the flipping of a single switch.”
For many years it was believed that the Worcester speech had been lost, but it was rediscovered in 1992. Even so, the speech has never really had significant national coverage.
This could be because people tend to revere King after his March on Washington and forget that the journey is just as important as the destination. In 1961 King’s visit to the temple could have just been another Monday night. But to us, now, it is a history-shaping moment.
You can listen to the Worcester speech here.