According to those involved, he was an unassuming regular guy.
“I don’t think we thought of him really as a real celebrity because he was very human,” said Rev. George St. Angelo, former chaplain of North Central College. “And one of the things that really struck me about him was that he was one heck of a good dresser.”
St. Angelo is describing one of history’s greatest civil rights advocates—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fifty years ago, St. Angelo invited Dr. King to North Central College and Naperville to speak in a packed Pfeiffer Hall.
“We got to know him kind of as a sparkling kid,” said St. Angelo with a grin creeping across his face, “and one time I said something and he responded ‘Ain’t that the truth!’ And he stopped and said, ‘I’m sorry I don’t use that kind of phrase, I’ve got a PHD.’”
At that time, Naperville was a rural town of 12,000 that was almost exclusively white.
As one can imagine, King’s presence wasn’t met with too much excitement outside of the college.
“There were protestors,” said St. Angelo, “but I have to tell you, I went about a week before down to the police station and told them what we were having. And they said ‘We would much rather not have him come. But if he does come, we’ll protect him.’ And by God they did.”
Dr. Ann Durkin Keating, a history professor at North Central College, explains the climate in 1960 Naperville.
“I think the bigger piece of this is that this is a story that was going on in the South,” said Keating. “This was someone in town that many people might not agree with, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, but most people didn’t see it as something that was affecting them . . . Martin Luther King really spoke to a smaller part of Naperville.”
When Dr. King spoke on the Pfeiffer Hall stage 50 years ago, he gave a speech titled “Stride Toward Freedom,” based on his book of the same name. In the book he says “At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love,” and that is something North Central tried to show when commemorating King’s 81st birthday this week.
The college kicked off the week honoring King with a visit from Princeton University professor and author Cornel West.
West is known for his contributions to the modern civil rights movement, along with his provocative thoughts on race. In front of a packed house, West spoke from the same podium as King, and spoke about keeping King’s fight for equality alive.
During one portion of his nearly 90 minute speech, West spoke specifically to the students in attendance, telling them to be their own person when fighting for race equality.
“Don’t be a copy, be an original, don’t be an imitation . . . Create yourself like Martin created himself,” said West.
His message, which brought many rounds of applause and a standing ovation at the conclusion, had the crowd buzzing, including North Central College president Dr. Harold Wilde.
“(Dr. King) wasn’t a saint,” said Wilde. “I think when we turn people into something like a saint it makes it hard for young people today to say, ‘Gee, I could do that.’ I hope the young people here tonight realize there’s still room and need for more Martin Luther King’s in the world.”
West’s speech and a roundtable with Rev. St. Angelo were a part of a whole week of celebration at North Central. And when the two men met Friday night, it was a moment that brought the biggest applause of the night.
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