Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1958 Visit to Bucknell

January 13, 2023

by Merrett R. Stierheim ’58

Special contributor Merrett R. Stierheim '58 reflects on the experience of hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Bucknell 65 years ago — and how King's message continues to inspire him today.

In 1953, after my sophomore year at Bucknell University, I left its lovely campus after being accepted into the United States Air Force cadet program. Four years later, as a first lieutenant crew navigator, I requested an "early out" from the Air Force so I could return to Bucknell and complete my college education under the GI Bill.

As a Baptist-founded University, but fully nondenominational, Bucknell had a requirement that every student had to attend at least 15 nondenominational chapel services on campus. I was quite religious about my chapel attendance record, but today, 65 years later, there is only one of those many services that I vividly recall and will never forget.

It was in late April 1958, and I didn't know who would be speaking, nor did I recognize the speaker when he was introduced. He began his comments in a low voice that I found myself straining to hear. But he had what seemed to be a magnetism about him that drew his audience to listen intently to his words. The intensity of his rhetoric increased gradually. Before he finished, he was truly oratorical — with a booming voice that seemed to rattle the chapel rafters. I was completely awestruck, and certainly not alone.

Merrett Stierheim wears a suit and stands behind a podium and speaks into a microphone.

Merrett Stierheim '58 encourages those who have not read Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail to spend time with it. Photo by Peter Cruise

I remember walking out of that chapel building somewhat stupefied, squinting in the bright sunlight. I simply had to know who that man was and asked the person next to me. The reply was, "Martin Luther King Jr."

When my 50th Bucknell class reunion arrived in 2008, I decided to revisit the University. I wanted to confirm my memory of that event, and so I made it a point to visit the campus library where I requested to view the microfilms of the University student newspaper (The Bucknellian) from the spring of 1958. I soon found the reference, an article written by Jan Powers on May 1, 1958. King's remarks were titled The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life. King concluded his speech by saying that we must love the self to gain length, but we must not stop there. We should "love thy neighbor as thyself" to gain breadth. The fulfillment of a complete life is an upward reach to God achieved by loving "the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, soul and mind. Every life must have its sky." I was indeed happy and reinvigorated to revisit his profound words from that long-ago day in 1958.

On the annual occasion in January when we celebrate King's mission in life, it is deeply distressing for me that racism is still flourishing in America. Some of my fellow Americans are brazen and make no secret of their prejudices and animus for people of color or different ethnicities and religions. Far too many conceal those prejudices but don’t deny them in the sanctity of the voting booth or in private places among like-minded people. For them, I feel pity.

I would respectfully urge that they take the time to first read A Call for Unity, a statement written in 1963 by eight white Alabama clergymen in response to civil rights demonstrations occurring at the time. That open letter prompted King, while in jail, to write in pencil on the edges of newspapers his response, Letter from Birmingham Jail.

How anyone of good conscience can read that historically profound letter and not empathize and be moved by the immensity of his written logic and truthful eloquence is beyond me. For those of good conscience who haven’t read it, I urge you to spend a few minutes with it. You will be rewarded, enriched and pleased that you did.

Bucknell is commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with a special week-long series of events, including a Zoom panel discussion about King's 1958 visit to campus. Merrett R. Stierheim '58 and Richard Boddie '61 will reflect on the experience of hearing King address the Bucknell community.