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1962 photo of Martin Luther King at Hill Auditorium

The Arc of Justice

MLK at Hill Auditorium, 1962

by Jan Schlain

From the January, 2017 issue

On November 5, 1962, Larry Brilliant, in his own words a "completely clueless sophomore," saw "a very small note and ad in the Michigan Daily. It said that Martin Luther King was coming. To this day I don't know what made me get out of bed and go there."

Rashel Levine was a sixteen-year-old freshman; her boyfriend, Daniel Jeffrey, was nineteen. "We were both very concerned about supporting black people," she recalls.

Jim Toy was years away from being a leader in the gay rights movement. "I was in my sexual-orientation closet," he recalls, "and enrolled in a graduate program at the U-M School of Music."

Joetta Mial was already engaged in the civil rights movement. Just eight years earlier her husband, Harry Mial, had been the first black teacher hired by the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and it was still hard for an African American to get a professional job--her friend Letitia Byrd, who went to King's speech with her, had been turned down by AAPS when she applied for a teaching job. (There were no laws against housing discrimination, and there were many neighborhoods in Ann Arbor where a black person couldn't rent an apartment or buy a home.)

Just emerging as a national leader, King was still unknown to most white Americans in 1962. But to Mial, he "was awe-inspiring ... He was a hero for all of us."

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King's Ann Arbor interlude was largely forgotten until 2012, when the Michigan Daily published an article headlined "MLK's 1962 visit highlighted in long-forgotten photographs." It described how David Erdody, a curator at the U-M Bentley Historical Library, had come across a series of twenty photo negatives from the event, only one of which had ever been published. He'd always wondered if King had been here, and with some help he found the photos in a file filled with images of distinguished visitors to campus, including Jonas Salk and John F. Kennedy.

Brian Williams, a senior archivist at

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the Bentley, recently wrote a much fuller account of King's visit. While Erdody brought the photos to light, Williams emails, "it's a stretch to say that they were lost or unknown. They were listed and described by archivists in a searchable finding aid (albeit without details or a date)." But he's grateful to Erdody for "bringing more attention to the negatives and raising awareness about them."

In his essay, Williams recounts how King was invited to speak by the U-M Office of Religious Affairs. Other sponsors included the Michigan Union's Special Projects Committee, which was sponsoring a series on civil liberties and distributed a hand-lettered flyer; VOICE, a student political party that later merged with the SDS; the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; and Challenge, a group whose mission, Williams writes, was "to encourage involvement in crucial problems by bringing prominent national figures to campus to promote discussion and action."

King met university president Harlan Hatcher, Michigan governor G. Mennen Williams, and other dignitaries over lunch and gave an afternoon talk at the Michigan Union before his evening speech at Hill.

Speaking by phone from Missoula, Montana, Rashel Levine Jeffrey recalls that she and her future husband met King on the steps of the Michigan Union. "He told us that if we wanted to talk to him we could come and visit him." The three of them talked for half an hour on the Union's third floor.

"He sat in the big brown chair," she recalls. "He looked very tired." They didn't ask questions. "It was conversational," she says. "He talked about the long struggle" for civil rights.

Joetta Mial recalls that she and Letitia Byrd attended the evening speech together. "We walked [a long way] because we couldn't get a parking place close by," she says. "We did get to shake his hand after."

Mial and Byrd were moved and honored, and King's speech encouraged them to follow a path they were already on. For others, the day was transformative.

"I was inspired by his speech," recalls Jim Toy by phone. The following year, he joined a civil rights march King led in Detroit. But its full effect took much longer to emerge. "Only after I came out of the closet in 1970, abandoned my graduate work, and co-founded the Spectrum Center at the U-M, did I slowly realize that Dr. King's peace-making work could be a model for my own," Toy emails. "It took me years to learn to speak 'non-violently' when I was advocating for the human and civil rights of TBLGQIA people." Ever since, he writes, "I have tried to model my work after what Dr. King did in his quest for justice--to do it in a 'peace-making' fashion."

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In a phone interview, Brilliant recalls that Hatcher apologized for the low turnout. "And what Martin Luther King said, was, 'Don't worry about it. You all come on up. There's more of me to go around.'

"He talked for a long time about the history of racial injustice and slavery. He talked about how it wasn't just black people who were mistreated. He talked about American Indians. He said, 'you're harming white people, not just black people [by perpetuating segregation] ... you're harming the soul of white people by making them complicitous in your system.

"What he actually said--I remember, without trying to quote him--was not just that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but that it won't bend towards justice unless we march. I think what he said was 'get off your butt and grab the arc and bend it, twist it, toward justice.'"

Back then, Brilliant says, he was "way too shy" to speak to King. But the speech transformed his life. "I switched my major to philosophy," joined a King-led civil rights march in Detroit, and "had sit-ins and teach-ins and joined an alphabet soup of civil rights organizations: CORE, SNCC, and NAACP. We learned nonviolence, to sit in at the lunch counter at Woolworth's, and absorb body blows without hitting back."

Brilliant went on to earn a master's in public health and a medical degree, live in an ashram in India, help eradicate smallpox, teach at the U-M School of Public Health, and found the Seva Foundation, which works to eliminate blindness worldwide--a trajectory traced in his new autobiography, Sometimes Brilliant.

When Brilliant returned to Hill in 2014 to speak at the U-M medical school's spring graduation ceremony, he credited it all to King. "It was in this hall, fifty-two years ago, that my life was forever changed," he told the young physicians. "I walked into this building November 5, 1962, a sad and depressed undergraduate. I walked out with a lifelong mission."    (end of article)

[Originally published in January, 2017.]

 

 
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