Linda Goodridge Steckley never experienced such force and passion from the pulpit of the Allison United Methodist Church in Carlisle.
“It was frightening,” she said. “We were just beginning to sense the turmoil of the civil rights movement that would change our world and lead ultimately to [Obama’s] historic election.”
The date was April 11, 1961, and Steckley was among the crowd listening to a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She was a member of the Dickinson College Class of 1963.
King was in Carlisle that April morning as part of the college’s Representative American Preacher series. His sermon at the Allison Church took place almost two years and five months before his historic March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963.
This April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination by James Earl Ray in Memphis. Steckley was one of several alumni quoted in an article published on Dec. 30, 2008, that memorialized his Carlisle visit. Michelle Simmons, former editor of the Dickinson Magazine, posted the article online in January 2017 ahead of the February MLK Jr. Symposium hosted by the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity.
John Cornew of the Dickinson College Class of 1963 recalled the anticipation of a crowd so large there were students sitting in the aisle and standing in the rear of the Allison church sanctuary.
“The single most important issue on anyone’s mind was civil rights,” Cornew said. “Everyone who was there was so excited to hear from him [King].”
The Sentinel ran a story on April 8 announcing King’s upcoming appearance. The newspapers referred to King as an “anti-segregation leader” and the current pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“He was prominent as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association which led the protest against segregation seating in the buses of Montgomery, Ala.,” The Sentinel article reads. “At the time, he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.”
The 2008 article said it had taken Dickinson College two years to bring King to campus. King was originally scheduled to appear on Nov. 24, 1959, but was delayed by fog in Atlanta the day before.
Between 1959 and 1961, King had become the pastor of the Ebenezer church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The 2008 article mentioned that the Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins were in full swing.
The sermon was covered in the April 14 edition of The Dickinsonian, the student newspaper. In it, King described the three dimensions of life as length, “a natural and healthy concern with oneself and goals;” breadth, “an outward concern for the welfare of others;” and height, “a reaching for God.”
“Many of the problems in the South today are caused because men are too occupied with the first dimension, their own selfishness and political security, economic positions, and social status,” King said. “If they would add breadth to length, the jangling discord would become a harmonious symphony.”
The Sentinel said King thought of conformity as the greatest sin of the South and hypocrisy as the greatest sin of the North. He had hoped that President John F. Kennedy could provide the leadership the country needed to change the American attitude towards discrimination.
In the Dickinsonian article, King described segregation as a system primarily concerned with a particular group of people who believe in “white supremacy,” “an idea that one particular race is better than others and responsible for all contributions to the world.
“All life is interrelated, and no nation today can live alone,” King said. He suggested the U.S. could solve its surplus food problem by storing food in the stomachs of the starving masses in India.
King also challenged the presence of materialistic atheism brought on by industrialization and scientific discoveries. “In spite of new developments God is still around,” King said. “It is this faith which guided me in the last few years. When people have asked how I can persist I answer ‘The cause is right, and we have cosmic companionship.’ Thus we can walk and never get weary and this keeps us going.”
King was on such a tight schedule, he only had time for lunch with church organist Jon Steen and Heber Harper, a Dickinson College professor of political science. Steen was a member of the Class of 1963.
“He’d look at you and smile but didn’t say much,” Steen said of King. “You really didn’t know what was on his mind.” King was unable to grant any requests for college conferences or interviews with journalists.
“During this period of transition and conflict in the South, I find it necessary to restrict myself to short trips more than before,” King said in April 1961.
In 1957 Time magazine selected King as one of the outstanding personalities of the year. The Sentinel reported that King had received more than 40 awards, citations and honors for his work on behalf of equality for blacks.