In May of 1962, Martin Luther King spoke to an overflow audience at Dartmouth College.
His progress report on the American civil rights movement was part of that year’s Great Issues Course, required for graduation.
Dartmouth tried three times to get the embattled civil rights leader on campus. The first two times he had to cancel because of legal actions against him or his supporters. So he began his speech with a witty jab at his enemies.
"I am very happy that my criminal instincts were repressed at least for a while so I didn’t have to be in jail this time, and I could have the privilege with you of sharing on this stage." King told his audience.
King’s speech to this academic community departed from his usual intense sermon style. It was more meditative, probing the psychological as well as the physical damage African-Americans-he called them Negroes-suffered throughout American history.
"Let us notice first that we have come a long, long way. One of the things I would like to mention at this point is that the Negro himself has come a long, long way in re-evaluating his own intrinsic worth," he said.
Dartmouth history professor Annelise Orleck says that’s just one of the many remarkable moments in the speech.
"He understood where he was. He was aiming at Dartmouth students. He was aiming at Dartmouth faculty. He was aiming at support from white northerners and from educated white people as well as people of color and the international students here. So I actually think it was…both a forward and a backward looking speech," she said.
King looked back at the way black Americans were deprived of rights-the right to vote, to schooling, to economic equality, to a life without fear of violence. And while he acknowledged the power of education to combat racism, he called for legislation as well. Even there, he delivered a line that now seems chilling, in light of his 1968 assassination.
"It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, religion and education will have to do that. But it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is very important, also," he said, as his listeners laughed.
The sweeping Civil Rights Act would pass two years later. But Professor Orleck notes that other goals set in King’s 1962 speech at Dartmouth remain elusive. For example, school segregation persists in many states.
"And black people are still disproportionately poor in this country. So on the one hand it is remarkable that the country has affirmed this President and it does speak to where we have come since King’s day. But at the same time there is still a great distance to go," Orleck notes.
Still, Orleck says it is fitting that President Obama is celebrating his election to a second term on the same day we remember a civil rights leader without whom a black president might have been only a dream.