Yale’s Good Example, circa 1964

“Who would want to attend Yale now?”

This sentence sounds oddly familiar to me after reading a few too many articles against the powerful student movement last semester. But reading this now, I’m not sitting behind my computer looking at hateful messages about Next Yale—instead, I’m looking at “The Kings at Yale” exhibition in the Sterling Nave. Beside me, I hear my friend Sarah, a tour guide, explaining distributional requirements to an eager group of prospective students. They, apparently, still want to go to Yale, even though the University conferred an honorary degree to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, which some students at the time considered ridiculous. This degree and the controversy surrounding it comprise the centerpoint of this minimalistic but powerful exhibition.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I slept in, frantically bluebooked, and attended part of the Keywords in Ethnic Studies panel. But it was easy to forget that Dr. King was once at Yale, too. Like me, he walked across Cross Campus, and by 2018 (I hope), Dr. King and I will have received a degree from the same school.

Now, looking at the installation, I understand this significance as I examine the five panels along the right side of the Nave, which are dedicated to exploring the history of Dr. and Mrs. King at Yale. They stand starkly and simply, at times even blending in next to the circulation desk. This subtle exhibition uses Yale’s archival materials, ranging from photos to newspaper clippings to personal correspondence, to tell this story. Its prime location at the heart of the library makes it both accessible and easily overlooked.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Yale twice, likely on a different sort of tour than those prospective students in the Nave. The first time, in 1959, he lectured on “The Future of Integration.” He returned in 1964 to receive that controversial honorary degree, just two days after having been arrested at a whites-only motel for ordering food. Coming from my history seminar, I realize I am not just studying history, I am walking on history — a history that’s not so far away.

The history that we now admire and revere did not seem deserving of admiration and reverence back then. A yellowed typewritten letter by “a very disturbed parent” criticizes Yale for conferring an honorary Doctorate of Law to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pondering, “What must the Free Countries of the World think of us? Who would want to attend Yale now?” The Charleston News and Courier said that the degree should read “doctor of terror,” instead of “doctor of laws.” A woman from Detroit, Eleanor Brennan, wrote President Kingman Brewster to inform him that he was “an accessory to the civil war which we are going to have” and that “[t]en thousand people giving [King] a standing ovation is my idea of insanity.”

Compared to the first panels about Dr. King’s time at Yale, which focus on the photos, the panels showcasing how people reacted to the degree are visually overwhelming. They’re covered with typewritten letters and marked-up newspaper clippings reacting to the degree. The installation successfully portrays the volume of correspondence and discussion around the issue, driving home the point that this degree was the single most controversial interaction between Dr. King and Yale.

The “Negative Reactions to the Honorary Degree” panel reminded me—even if unintentionally—that arguments against progress existed long before they found a new home in online comments sections. The person we now celebrate with a national holiday was once despised as a part of irreverent student movements and anathema to Yale’s values.

But of course, even then, there were supporters. The Minneapolis Tribune lauded the degree as “Yale’s Good Example,” and a San Francisco paper deemed Yale worthy of the motto “Light and Truth.” President Brewster responded to complaints thoughtfully and personally, citing the importance of academic freedom yet not going much farther than that. Meanwhile, the exhibition includes a letter from Dr. King himself noting what a moving experience the commencement was.

Mrs. King, too, made her mark on Yale: The final panel in the exhibition documents Coretta Scott King visiting the University to lecture on “The Role of the Academic Community in Today’s Turbulent World.” It includes a photo of her visit, a newspaper story covering it and the announcement of her visit. Mrs. King’s insights as recounted in the article about her visit sound not so dissimilar from the student movements on campus last semester. To an audience of 2,500 in our very familiar Woolsey Hall, she called the student rebellion of the ’60s “a new world struggling to be born.” She reminded the audience that there is nothing wrong with “a stance against war, unadulterated racism” and emphasized that women should become capable leaders and freethinkers.

The exhibition gives passers-by a subtle and meaningful reminder of the history all around us, but also our duty to the history we’re building and the values we’re espousing. And lucky for us, Sterling has made this story accessible enough that we don’t even have to go to the Stacks.