Founders Day 2017: The 60th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's visit to Peddie

Founders Day is one of three annual formal school gatherings. Convocation opens the school in September and commencement marks the end of the school year and the beginning of life after Peddie for our seniors. Founders Day is an occasion to recognize the founding of the Peddie School and to honor those who created, sustained, and continue to propel the school and enrich all of our lives. 

Thomas B. Peddie
Founders’ Day is in February because Thomas Peddie was born February 12. And even though he did not start the school, he saved the school from oblivion with his historic gift in 1872. A relatively recent tradition has focused Founders Day on especially consequential people of Peddie other than Peddie himself.  Sometimes these are people - still living - with whom we  might have a personal connection, as with instrumental heads, teachers, and alumni (Bob Tucker and Bob Zenker last year); sometimes they are legends from the past whose dedication and generosity sustained us – yet whose names are not Peddie, Caspersen, or Annenberg.

We still tell the story of Scottish immigrant and self-made Newark businessman Thomas B. Peddie who saved the infant, faltering New Jersey Classical and Scientific Institute with a gift of $25,000, and how the trustees renamed the school in gratitude.
Walter Annenberg '27

We still tell the story of Walter Annenberg Class of ’27, son of Moses Annenberg who fled with his family the anti-Semitic pogroms in East Prussia and immigrated to Chicago in 1885. Walter, saddled with a speech impediment, a deformed ear and the controversial reputation of his indomitable father, came to Peddie, was treated well by his teachers (whose names are listed inside Masters House), and never forget his school. He supported it from his graduation until his death, honoring his family name and his school throughout his life, but most spectacularly in 1993 with a Father’s Day gift of $100 million providing access for innumerable students as a gift to us all.

We still tell the story of Finn Caspersen, 
Finn Caspersen '59
Class of ’59, and son of a Norwegian immigrant. A financier, philanthropist, and investor in education. He was the visionary and determined board chair for Peddie for over 30 years, the man who with four heads of school and scores of trustees, faculty, and families bulldogged a strong school into becoming an extraordinary school, a determined, honest, and unwavering institution.  Those three stories, along with others that we have celebrated - and others yet to be celebrated - remind us that the Peddie we love today is the dream and the gift of those who came before us. That long line of heroes looks with hope and affection on our years, and asks only, “make it better – begin anew”.

This year Founders’ Day coincides with the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. coming to Peddie and speaking in this chapel in February 1957. On one hand, the twenty-eight year old Dr. King – close in age to our own Kurt Bennett and Jenate Brown -- was merely another in a series of visiting ministers speaking to students in a Baptist school, though surely one of the first African-Americans ever to speak at Peddie. On the other hand, Dr. King was an emerging national figure in the Civil Right movement: his anti-segregation message and focus on “non-violent social resistance” had been tested in the months before by Rosa Parks and thousands of Alabama citizens in the heroic Montgomery Bus boycott; and he was featured that on the cover of Time magazine the week of his Peddie visit.

Just thirty-eight days before he came to Peddie, terrorists had bombed four black churches and two bus boycott leaders and ministers’ homes in Montgomery, and a dozen sticks of smoldering dynamite were later removed from the porch of Dr. King’s home. Despite this violent response to the success of the bus boycott, Dr. King kept his appointment at Peddie, and spoke to the assembled school of how the struggle for justice would continue “until the walls of segregation are crumbled by the battering ram of surging justice.” Said King to Peddie: “We must never submit to the temptation to indulge in hate campaigns. That’s the easy thing to do. Oppressed people must avoid becoming saturated with evil, with hate. This non-violence is based on a faith in the future, a faith that believes that the universe is on the side of the forces of justice.”

Let me offer some historical context. In the 1950s, the United States was still a racially segregated country, black and white, in both north and south, and tradition, custom, and even law in some places sustained this segregation. Before Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement that many of us recall visually, the movement for civil rights for all began in many other moments and places.

Marian Anderson
For example, in 1939 Marian Anderson a famed African-American opera star, denied the opportunity to sing in the Daughters of American Revolution concert Hall, did sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, before 75,000 people and over the radio waves, beginning with “My Country 'Tis of Thee.”  She reached a much larger audience in that setting than she would have in Constitution Hall!

Then in 1854, the US Supreme Court delivered the Brown v. Board of Education decision, overturning the infamous, 58 year-old doctrine of “separate but equal,” and paving the way for de-segregating public institutions like schools, the armed forces, and public transportation.

Racial terrorism continued, as here in the 1955 lynching of Emmitt Till, whose nationally published funeral image was a catalyst for awakening anger.

In 1956 the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, initiated by Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus and sustained by hundreds of volunteers, won a victory for desegregating public transportation.

Pushback continued, as was clear in the terrorism of a KKK cross-burning on the front yard of an Alabama minister.

1957 also marked Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus’s resistance against the Brown v Board of Education ruling, his use of the Arkansas National Guard to enforce his illegal resistance, and President Eisenhower’s response - to federalize the national guard, return them to their barracks, and send troops from the 101st Airborne Division accompany African-Americans students to their schools. It was the most dramatic dispute between a state and the federal government since the Civil War.

Meanwhile at Peddie, the color line had been broken in 1948 by Horace Brown, Class of 1951, Senior Class secretary and soccer captain. Horace Brown was first a few year earlier, but the school looked like this, clearly all male and white, these seniors in the class of 1957. Into this Peddie came Dr. King.

In this chapel that February day was junior Mort Goldfein, Class of 1959, a hot-shot writer for the Peddie News from Theodore Roosevelt Junior High in West Orange, and now a distinguished New Jersey attorney and activist. Enrolling later as a freshman from Trenton’s Junior High #3, was Arthur E. Brown, Class of 1963, an honored physician, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Also in the chapel that day - enrolled only a couple of weeks earlier - was a new student, a sixth grader from down the road in Bordentown, perhaps the only African-American student in school that year, the Honorable David B. Mitchell, Class of 1963. He is a long-time, now retired circuit court judge of Baltimore City, Maryland, and classmate of Dr. Brown.

We welcome them today. Some of the men on whose shoulders we stand, who were once new students at Peddie, boys who, like you and others who will follow, sat in these pews, went to classes, played sports, acted on stage, and built the Peddie of their day. And one day, 60 years ago, they came to this chapel to hear one of the most prominent voices of the twentieth century – and an enduring voice in human history.