North Central College - Naperville, IL

1960 Martin Luther King visit inspired students to activism

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During January, North Central College celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a week of events and activities. As part of a yearlong celebration of its Sesquicentennial, the College’s 2012 observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Week is particularly significant.

King was someone who embraced leadership, ethics and values, which is an integral part of the mission North Central hopes to impart upon all its students. The College was founded in 1861 by Evangelical Christians who believed strongly in equal rights for all, regardless of race or gender. The College’s first president, A.A. Smith, was an abolitionist, and throughout its history North Central College has demonstrated its commitment to the principles of equality and nonviolence.

Perhaps the greatest examples occurred during the 1960s. In November 1960 Arlo Schilling was early in his tenure as the College’s seventh president. George St. Angelo, a 1943 alumnus who served as College chaplain, convinced King to come to Naperville and speak on campus in Pfeiffer Hall. There was great concern at the time that King’s visit would be disruptive, that the people of Naperville would be intolerant of his appearance. Schilling was pressured to cancel the talk, but he refused, and Naperville residents—it turned out—embraced King’s message.

A few years later, in March 1965, during some of the most tumultuous moments in America’s civil rights movement, St. Angelo led a group of North Central students to Selma, Ala., to participate in a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Again there was great concern for the safety of the students involved, but the trip took place.

“I was told I’d be exiled by my family if I proceeded on the bus to Selma,” recalls the Rev. Thomas Reinhart-Marean, a 1967 graduate of North Central who today is a United Methodist pastor in Newport Beach, Calif. “(King’s) presence transformed fear and confusion into focus and determination. He had a commanding presence as God’s prophet in our time … We experienced taunting and the hate of white people along the way. I didn’t know that kind of racial bigotry existed … That experience changed my life and I’m doing my best to keep walking the path I put my feet on in Selma in 1965.”

The Sesquicentennial is an opportunity to recall the achievements of some of the College’s many African-American alumni, including Bertram Lee, class of 1961, who owned the Denver Nuggets NBA franchise; Joan Gray, class of 1971, president of Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre; John Daniels, class of 1969, chairman of Quarles & Brady, a Milwaukee law firm who has been honored as among the top attorneys in Wisconsin; the late Byron Ware, class of 1968—a recent inductee into the College’s Athletic Hall of Fame—was one of the first African-Americans to win a national title in collegiate swimming; and Tracy Smith Malone, class of 1990, a minister and regional leader in the United Methodist Church.

The College has an active African-American Alumni Association, is experiencing record minority enrollment and partners with INROADS, a nonprofit organization that helps college students and others pursue internships and other opportunities in business, industry and community leadership.

This January, North Central College celebrates its heritage and King’s legacy with a week of events Jan. 15-21 that include musical tributes, a prayer breakfast, activities and keynote presentation by talk show host, political commentator and entrepreneur Tavis Smiley Jan. 19.

The Chicago Sinfonietta—the nation’s most diverse orchestra and a fine arts partner of North Central College—performs its annual musical celebration of King’s life on Sunday, Jan. 15, in Wentz Concert Hall.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, the annual Gospel Extravaganza showcases a variety of energetic and enthusiastic gospel performers and choirs.

Nicor, Quarles & Brady and Sara Lee Foundation are underwriting sponsors of Martin Luther King Jr. Week at North Central College. Visit or call the box office at 630-637-SHOW (7469) for ticket information about these and other performances.