From Accolades To Hate Mail, Yale Shares Materials From MLK Visit

Jan 11, 2018

In honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library is highlighting two visits the civil rights leader made to New Haven during his lifetime.

King's first visit to Yale was in January 1959, when the Undergraduate Lecture Committee invited him to give a speech at Woolsey Hall on the future of civil rights movement.

The stakes were much higher for King's second visit in 1964. Yale's new president, Kingman Brewster chose King to receive an honorary degree at commencement exercises in June.

Days before commencement, it wasn't clear whether King would make it to New Haven. He was arrested for joining white civil rights leaders in the white section of a hotel dining room in St. Augustine, Florida. Also arrested in the incident was Yale's legendary Chaplain, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin.

“At the time he was in prison,” said Bill Massa, Head of Collection Development for Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale University Library. “He was released to come to Yale, because Yale does require that anyone who receives an honorary degree be present for that degree.”

Yale's decision to bail King out made headlines, and was not without controversy. Many Yale alumni praised Brewster for the move. Some of those letters are on display at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, including a handwritten note from 1952 alumnus Michael Bennett.

"Dear President Brewster, I heartily applaud the Reverend Dr. King and Yale for awarding him an honorary degree. This event is an auspicious one, and for your administration. With best wishes for the coming years."

Also on display are letters from people who vehemently opposed Yale's actions, like a crudely typed letter from "a very disturbed parent."

“I think this country has gone to a new low, when a university as important as Yale extends the honor of Doctor of Law to a man who has violated the laws and been in jails all over the country and had to get bailed out of jail to receive the award. What must the free countries of the world think of us? Who would want to attend Yale now?" 

Below the letter is a large reproduction of a cutout from the Augusta Courier newspaper. The headline reads "Martin Luther King...At A Communist Training School." Below the headline is a picture of King, allegedly sitting with communists listening to a lecture. Under King's face someone had typed the words "false prophet" and "traitor."

King received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Yale University on June 15, 1964. King's citation on that day read:

"As your eloquence has kindled the nation’s sense of outrage, so your steadfast refusal to countenance violence in resistance to injustice has heightened our sense of national shame. When outrage and shame together shall one day have vindicated the promise of legal, social, and economic opportunity for all citizens, the gratitude of peoples everywhere and of generations of Americans yet unborn will echo our admiration as we proudly confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws."

Four months after King received his honorary doctorate at Yale, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.