A new occasional series focusing on UWI & the 1960s was launched November 6 with a panel discussion on Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s visit to the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona campus in Jamaica, which took place on June 20, 1965, 50 years ago. The UWI was established in 1948 as a college of the University of London and gained independent degree-granting status in 1962, early in a decade already marked by shifting dynamics at national, regional, and international levels.
The UWI & the 1960s initiative is a collaboration between the UWI Museum and the Social History Project (SHP) of the UWI Department of History & Archaeology. Curator Suzanne Francis-Brown noted that UWI & the 1960s will be an occasional series of history and heritage related events that would “recognize and explore points of connection between UWI and various people, events, developments and ideas that have been important far beyond our own gates.” And SHP Director Matthew Smith noted the relevance to culture, education, local and regional politics among many other areas.
The MLK Moment at UWI in 1965 was contextualised in terms of the local national and university environment, which then also included concerns over racial segregation in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), reflected in a student demonstration during the 1964 Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held at the UWI campus in Kingston, Jamaica. UWI Emeritus Professor of History Patrick Bryan, who was in the Class of ’65 which MLK addressed in their Valedictory Service, gave a personal appreciation of the time. The broader context for King’s work was provided by Professor Smith who spoke on Montgomery to Mona: King, the Civil Rights Movement and Jamaica, 1955-1965. And the context of Caribbean Black Power activism was provided by UWI Emeritus Professor of Political Thought, Rupert Lewis.
KING VISIT FACTS:
Dr King agreed to preach the Valedictory sermon at the UWI in response to an invitation extended by Vice-Chancellor Philip Sherlock, at the suggestion of the Chapel committee. That committee included a medical student, E. Anthony Allen, then in his penultimate year, who actually put forward the idea.
When Dr King agreed to come, the UWI administration suggested extending his visit to include a civic event. At first, this appeared impossible and UWI decided to relocate the service from its usual location in the University Chapel, to the larger Assembly Hall, to accommodate a wide range of non-UWI persons including dignitaries. Eventually, Dr King’s visit did include a civic reception and address at the Stadium on June 21, and a visit to the tomb of National Hero Marcus Garvey.
MLK preached on brotherhood. He also made clear that he valued the Jamaican context, where he as a Black man could feel at home; and that he recognised the importance of the psychological and other support offered by Jamaicans among many others.
The 1965 visit was one of three that King paid to Jamaica during his lifetime but the only one where a speech is recorded. He had been invited, the previous year, to address the National Association of Citizens Associations in Kingston, but was unable to accept. He noted then, in a letter archived at the King Center in Atlanta, that he had already spent a week in Kingston in 1963. In 1965, after his UWI and other public obligations were met, he and his party (including his wife, Coretta and assistant Rev Bernard Lee) were joined by colleague activist Rev Ralph Abernathy and Mrs Abernathy for a few days of strategising and relaxation on Jamaica’s north coast. And in 1967, he would return, spending a working holiday in a north coast villa while completing his second book, Where do we go from here?
The Jamaican connection would also continue after his assassination in 1968, with the posthumous award of the first Marcus Garvey award by the Government of Jamaica.
Martin Luther King’s UWI speech can currently be heard in the UWI Museum.