While the University has a long, visible history of honoring late civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Jr., one of his visits to the University during the height of the civil rights movement has been overlooked — until now.
David Erdody, a digital curator at the Bentley Historical Library, discovered a series of 20 photo negatives in early January that feature King giving a speech and hosting a discussion at the University. These photographs, which have never been printed or published, depict King speaking and greeting a crowd at Hill Auditorium, attending a small discussion in the Michigan Union and having dinner at the University on Nov. 5, 1962.
In explaining the discovery of the photo negatives, Erdody said he’s known since his childhood that King often made trips to Detroit, but he always wondered if King ever made an appearance at the University.
“I worked for the University of Michigan for over 20 years — ever since King’s birthday has been a holiday — and I’ve never read of King coming to Ann Arbor,” Erdody said. “I figured if King ever came (here), we’d know about it in some way, and I never remembered ever seeing that.”
After Erdody began volunteering at the Bentley Historical Library last year, he said he used the Bentley’s resources and the support of the Bentley management team to search for the answer to his question.
“When King’s birthday approached in January, I was at the place that could definitively answer if he’s been here or not,” Erdody said. “And it didn’t take very much to be able to find.”
Erdody said a quick search in the Bentley’s archives revealed about 100 documents and archival material relating to King. While 99 of these results did not relate to a University visit by King, one result — the series of photo negatives — sparked Erdody’s curiosity. After examining and developing the negatives into photographs, Erdody said he discovered the exact evidence he was searching for.
“I was pretty sure that I had something very good here because my supervisor (Karen Jania), was standing with me, and she said she didn’t know anything about (the photos), and I talked to the director of the Bentley Library, (Francis Blouin), and he didn’t know (about the negatives),” Erdody said.
Searching for more information about the photos and King’s visit to campus, Erdody consulted former University President James Duderstadt after learning about his presentation on student activism on March 16 at the University.
Duderstadt, who joined the University staff six years after King’s visit to campus, said Erdody contacted him after he delivered the speech and showed him the images of King.
“All (Erdody) knew was that they were from some event in 1962, but he didn’t know what they were,” Duderstadt said. “(Erdody) brought (the pictures of King) over to me to see if I knew some people who had been around along enough to figure it out, and I checked with people … in the Central Administration, and they had no knowledge of it.”
Duderstadt then contacted Public Policy junior Joseph Lichterman, editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, who examined the 1962 issues of the newspaper. Lichterman discovered articles stating the date of King’s event and describing his speech.
The material in the Daily archives included an advertisement for the event, published on Nov. 4, 1962; an opinion piece, printed on Nov. 8, 1962; and two articles printed on Nov. 6, 1962 about King’s speech at Hill Auditorium — including an event cover and an article discussing issues surrounding King’s encouragement of civil disobedience, which he discussed in his informal talk at the Michigan Union.
Duderstadt explained that King’s advocating for students to go against unjust federal laws might have created some tension at the University in 1962.
“There apparently was a controversy because in his speech, King suggested the importance of civil disobedience, and I guess a couple of the (University) regents raised concerns about that,” Duderstadt said. “It was almost exactly 50 years ago, and it was a time when Martin Luther King was a pretty controversial person. The FBI was tracking him and so forth.”
According to a 1962-1963 President’s Report to the Board of Regents, King delivered his address twice to a “filled audience” in Hill Auditorium. The event was organized through the University’s Office of Religious Affairs and the Michigan Union Special Projects Committee.
Since finding the negatives, Erdody said he and others at the Bentley have been working to identify the students and individuals surrounding King in the series of photos, as well as locating the areas where he held his discussion and attended a dinner at the University. Erdody noted this has been a challenging task because of how much time has passed since the event.
“The first thing we wanted to do (after finding the photos) was find out as much more about this as possible,” Erdody said. “But this was 50 years ago to this year.”
Erdody said he believes the photos of King interacting with attendees occurred after one of King’s two speeches in Hill Auditorium. Duderstadt noted the lack of diversity of the crowd in the images.
“The composition of the group of people that he was talking to at Hill Auditorium did not reflect a strong participation by people of color, which is characteristic of the University at that time,” Duderstadt said. “The fact that (the event) was in Hill Auditorium … it must have been an event that attracted a significant crowd.”
In the Nov. 6, 1962 issue of the Daily where King’s speech was discussed, former President of the Michigan Union and senior Robert Finke published a viewpoint regarding the University’s involvement with the United States National Student Association. According to the Nov. 8, 1962 editorial in the Daily, King advocated for such involvement during his speech at Hill Auditorium.
Finke wrote in an e-mail interview that he does not remember attending King’s appearance on campus, but he assumes he attended due to his position as President of the Michigan Union. He added that the University community in the early 1960s supported King, and he assumes King was respected during his visit to campus.
“Honestly, I don’t recall any specifics of the event. I recall some events in that time frame, but not this one. It was consistent with Michigan’s openness and importance for MLK to come and speak at the University,” Finke wrote. “MLK was an important figure at the time and was regarded as such by most in the University community, I believe.”
King’s appearance at the University was also noted in the 1963 Michiganesian Yearbook, which included a photograph of King speaking at Hill Auditorium that was not among the negatives. University President Mary Sue Coleman also alluded to King’s visit to the University in her 2008 address at Hill Auditorium during the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
According to the Symposium’s website, King was serving as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when he visited the University for his speech. The event on campus occurred about nine months before the historic March on Washington and delivered King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King lived for six years after his visit to the University before being assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Finke added that he doesn’t believe the King event has been forgotten and that it adds to the rich history of significant speakers at the University.
“There were many people who came to speak in Ann Arbor in those and later years who were significant public figures — some more and some less than was MLK at that time — and I expect their appearances have been “forgotten,” too,” Finke wrote.
For Duderstadt, King’s visit to the campus serves as an important part of the University’s history that should be examined. He explained that large public universities often lose track of significant events in their histories.
“It’s characteristic of public universities … to either forget their history or bury it or pave over it,” Duderstadt said. “Every once in a while, someone who is interested in history has to come along and dig it back up again.”
Though he discovered the photo negatives, Erdody emphasized that he did not “find” the photos, but rather his curiosity and interest in King led to his discovery of the evidence of King’s visit to the University.
“This was all findable,” Erdody said. “It wasn’t any special skill on my part; it was my curiosity. That’s what did it. I asked the pertinent question: ‘Did King come to U of M?’ And found the pertinent answer.”
Erdody said the images suggest a recording system may have been used during King’s speeches, and he plans to search for them.
“To find an audio recording is what I really want to do,” Erdody said. “Even though they don’t think one exists — well, for 50 years, we didn’t think anything existed. So I’m going to try and work magic again.”
King’s visit to the University and the newfound photo evidence enhance the University’s history, according to Erdody, and he said he hopes they become available to the campus community.
“I think we could find out as much as we can about (the photos) and have a permanent exhibition,” Erdody said. “Martin Luther King is the single person this University recognizes the most as an individual, more than any other person. … Now that we know that he’s here and the evidence is just so stunningly beautiful, I’ll let other (University) people decide what to do with them.”
—Editor in chief Joseph Lichterman did not edit this article—