When Martin Luther King said that ‘this day will remain dear to me as the cords of memory lengthen’ on November 13th 1967 in Newcastle University, he was expecting that these cords would not lengthen very long after.
5 months later, on the balcony of a Memphis motel, he was assassinated. The legacy he bequeathed to us all is something the world is still wrestling with, but the legacy he left Newcastle University lay untouched for years until only a few years ago.
It has now been 50 years since King came here for his honorary doctorate, and the tapes of his speech, now processed and accessible, show us the immortal words the man himself uttered standing inside the King’s hall. In association with the council, Newcastle University has worked to bring these words to the city again through the organisation of ‘Freedom City’ – a city-wide programme celebrating the great man and his noble cause.
Of all the events involved in the program, however, one notable project seemed to garner the most attention. Throughout Newcastle, in cafes and hairdressers, in libraries and bakeries, in Gym classes and on the Metro, the words of Martin Luther King were read out by members of the public. The effect of this, I think, is greater than it initially seems. As superb as the newly unveiled statue is, we must remember that it is the words of the man himself that hold such resonance. ‘Not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’ is a quote that will live forever, not just in quotation, but also in everyday conversation. But that most famous of examples is only one example, and in this resurfaced footage this very same eloquence is once again carried into his words.
The transition from the abstract to the very real is something that King was adept at doing
Among the many remarkable qualities that King had, perhaps his most prominent was his eloquence. Brought upon the stage, the man offered to do an impromptu speech in gladness of his doctorate, and it is extraordinary how moving a speech it is.
‘It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me’.
The transition from the abstract to the very real is something that King was adept at doing, and it must have been an awful realisation for a Newcastle audience to be standing before someone who was genuinely fearing to be ‘lynched’. But these words still hold grievous relevance, with the message that ‘the destiny of white and coloured persons is tied together’ still one needing to be heard.
The next few weeks will be full with celebration. I remember when I was a little boy, sitting as the only non-white child among a classroom of white children, crying when reading the story of Martin Luther King. I already knew that there was hate in this world, and that people hated me for nothing, but I read knowing that hope was something that King celebrated in every word he spoke. And for this, we will celebrate this man and his words.