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Impressions remain vivid of King’s visit to Bethel College 46 years ago

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- After 46 years and waves of history to wade through, it’s hard to remember details of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Bethel College on Jan. 21, 1960. Nevertheless, people who were there say he left an indelible impression.

Many had their memories stirred when Mark McCormick, a columnist for the Wichita Eagle, wrote about King’s visit to Bethel in his column on Sunday, Jan. 15, King’s birthday.

Blanche Spaulding, North Newton, is the widow of economics professor J. Lloyd Spaulding, chair of the committee that planned the Memorial Hall Series under the auspices of which King came to Bethel.

"Lloyd was an enthusiastic supporter and follower of Dr. King’s work," Spaulding recalls. Since those were the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and since King was not yet widely known, she thinks it was probably her husband’s personal interest in King that helped put him on the Memorial Hall Series roster.

Like many of those who remember being at the faculty and board dinner for King the evening of Jan. 21, 1960, and his speech following, Spaulding recalls few details. "But I can still remember coming in the back of Mem Hall and walking down to find a seat," she says. "It was an occasion. It was one of the high points of our time at Bethel."

John O. Schrag, North Newton, was the chair of the Bethel College Board at the time. He and his wife, Esther, sat on either side of King at the dinner, held in the basement of Memorial Hall, which was then the dining hall. "I have vivid memories of having that access to him and being able to talk with him," Schrag says.

"I’d forgotten how much animosity there was" in the wider community toward King, Schrag says. "Those were hard times." Adds Spaulding, "I remember the enthusiasm at Bethel [for his coming] but also the question: What will happen?"

By all accounts, however, the event went smoothly. According to the 1960 Bethel College yearbook, Dr. King’s "forceful lecture, in which he stressed the importance of love and nonviolence in the future of the Negro movement toward equality and justice, was well received by a full house in Memorial Hall."

Dwight Platt, then a young professor of biology, would hear King speak at least twice more. On Aug. 28, 1963, Platt, his wife Lavonne and their infant son traveled from Durham, N.C., where Platt was doing summer studies at Duke University, to Washington, D.C., for what would be the historic March on Washington where King gave his "I have a dream" speech. In March 1965, Platt along with 21 college students, most from Bethel, and Dolores Wedel, Adolf Ens (then instructor in Bible) and Vern Preheim, then working for the General Conference Mennonite Church, took part in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in support of voter registration for blacks.

Emil Kreider, a senior at Bethel in 1960, remembers King "talking informally with a large group of students in the area where we congregated before going into the dining hall." Kreider is now professor of economics at Beloit (Wis.) College. Duane Friesen and Richard Rempel, both of North Newton, were younger students in January 1960. Rempel is professor of mathematics at Bethel and Friesen recently retired from 35 years of teaching Bible, religion and Christian ethics there.

Neither one remembers much more than where they sat in Mem Hall for King’s speech. However, "I’d read about [the Montgomery bus boycott]," Rempel says. "It was exciting to hear him." Rempel and his wife, Erna, now live in the former parsonage of Bethel College Mennonite Church, where King stayed overnight with then pastor Russell Mast.

King would remain an important influence for Friesen throughout his teaching career. King was "an evangelical liberal who taught from a rich biblical tradition with a creative message about social justice, war and peace," Friesen told McCormick. Friesen’s book Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City (Herald Press, 2000) holds King up as a theological and intellectual model.

"I used King’s writings over and over in my classes," says Friesen. "It’s hard to remember the details [of Jan. 21, 1960] but what was more important was what came later."

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