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King’s 1965 Speech in Sims Hall Still Inspires
For Fern Durand, one conversation last week turned a familiar corridor turned into something else. He was in the Shaffer Arts Building, walking past the SUArtGalleries, when a stranger approached him and asked if he knew this story:
In 1965, not so far from where Fern stood, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech on inequities in American education that brought more than 1,000 women and men to their feet.
Durand paused and closed his eyes. Born in Haiti, he came to this nation as a 3-year-old. He was raised in Rockland County. At Syracuse University, he nurtures dreams of building a career as both a writer and a voice actor, in animation.
He is also a young man of color, passionate about the suffering and struggle at the foundation of the American civil rights movement. The idea that King once stood in that same space, he said, left him searching to find the right words.
“I can imagine Dr. King right there, standing at a podium, waving his arms, giving his speech,” Durand said. He spoke of the riveting power of that great voice, how transcendent moments in history never really vanish.
“The memory will live on,” Durand said, “because it happened here.”
The 1965 speech is taking on renewed meaning at Syracuse University. It played a significant role in Sunday’s 32nd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Carrier Dome. Chancellor Kent Syverud intertwined his remarks with audio portions of the speech, the first time they were heard by a large audience in almost 51 years, since the day King himself offered those thoughts.
The chancellor spoke of the imperative of remembering the ideals of compassion, humanity and tolerance that King laid out in the address. He also praised Charles Willie, a faculty member who introduced King at the time. King was an old friend of Willie’s, who became chairman of the Department of Sociology before leaving Syracuse to join the faculty at Harvard University.
The audience at the Dome heard Willie’s haunting description of his guest: In a powerful voice, Willie said King was a “suffering servant” whose raw courage in the face of injustice made him a “marked man.”
Less than three years later, King would be killed by an assassin.
King spoke on campus twice, in 1961 and 1965. For years, the University archives had a recording of the 1961 speech, at Sadler Hall, in which King used many of the elements that he would make immortal in his 1963 speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Yet any audio record of the 1965 speech seemed lost. At the old Sims Hall dining hall, in an address that retains painful relevance, King warned his audience not to become complacent about public education in Northern cities. He spoke of how de facto segregation created “Jim Crow schools” that hurled countless African-American children onto a “human slag heap.”
Unless you are committed to changing those realities—and studies a half-century later show a pattern of deep segregation in many Northern cities—you condemn generations to lives of grief and poverty, King said.
An original transcript seemed to be the only surviving record of that speech. But two years ago, unexpectedly, researchers discovered two new recordings of the event. That 1965 visit was organized by William Wayson, a member of the University faculty at the time. In 2015, when the Syracuse Post-Standard contacted Wayson, 80, at his Ohio home, he said he still had a complete reel-to-reel tape of the speech.
Shortly afterward, Ed Galvin—now retired as the University archivist—found another copy stored in a collection of tapes transferred years ago to the archives, from Bird Library. Adding to the importance of the discovery: It turned out that King did not stick to the transcript. In the speech, he provided an unforgettable surprise.
At the end of his prepared remarks, he veered into a kind of spontaneous encore, setting aside his written remarks and building into many of the themes from his immortal speech in Washington. He ended with a line he’d already engraved in history:
“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
Newspaper reports say the crowd, swept away, rose and applauded.
All of that happened not far from where Fern Durand stopped last week in awe, in the area now used for gallery space. The original building, however, was known as the Sims dining hall, attached to nearby Sims Hall. Built in 1946, it was described by the Post-Standard as “probably the largest dining hall in the country and one of the largest open floors in Syracuse.”
The hall could accommodate crowds of more than 1,000. It allowed the University to stage large balls and dances on campus, events that for years had been held in halls in downtown Syracuse.
On July 15, 1965, that dining hall became a place of lasting history when King—a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was only a few months past the landmark march at Selma—was the guest speaker during the summer session.
The dining hill still exists, but in vastly different form. By the late 1960s, Sims Hall was no longer a dormitory, and the dining hall was no longer needed. “In the early ‘70s, SU shuttered the dining hall and repurposed it as the Lowe Art Gallery,” wrote Christopher Danek, the University’s assistant director for academic facilities, in an email.
“The footprint of the Lowe’s main exhibition space is that of the original dining room,” Danek wrote. “In 1989, SU constructed the Shaffer Art Building directly abutting the west and north faces of the Lowe, ostensibly burying the former dining hall behind Shaffer’s façade.”
The actual building, then, remains connected to Sims Hall, now the home of the University’s Department of African American Studies. And the department library in Sims—“small but mighty,” in the words of librarian Angela Williams—is named in King’s honor.
She said it is “humbling” to work in a complex where King once spoke. She marveled at how his words must have echoed through the halls, how “the pitch of his voice was so captivating, the eloquence of his speech such that African-Americans feel such pride and dignity whenever you hear one of his speeches played.”
Remembering King’s presence, his command of a room, “is a timely thought,” Williams said, “when so many things can alienate us.”
As for the students who paused last week near the place where King spoke? Lark Allen, a senior studying just outside the SUArtGalleries, called the speech “an incredibly important” event that ought to be remembered.
Fern Durand was almost overwhelmed by the revelation. He said King’s life and death provide a reminder of “how sometimes you need sacrifice to make a change in humanity.” He was stunned to learn King once spoke in a place Durand has walked past countless times, without a second thought.
Andra Brown shook her head, astounded at the coincidence of being told about the speech,at that moment. The 20-year-old senior is focused on psychology and child and family studies, with a minor in African American Studies. She said the long disappearance of the tape fits the theme of a paper she held in her lap:
Too often, she said, great achievements by those with “black or brown bodies” are overlooked or set aside, historically, by the larger culture.
Yes, she said, looking toward the gallery: It’s important that people know what King said here.