Published on: 11 July 2017
Former students of Newcastle University who were present when Dr Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city in 1967 to accept an honorary degree have shared their memories of that momentous day.
Reflections on a civil rights icon
The university alumni have taken part in a series of videos produced as part of Freedom City 2017 – the city-wide programme of events to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr King receiving an honorary degree from Newcastle University.
Among those interviewed in the videos is Nick Nicholson, who was the president of Newcastle University Students’ Union in 1967. He carried the ceremonial mace to lead the honorary degree procession into the King’s Hall where the event took place. This meant that he sat just a few metres away from Dr King as he delivered his acceptance speech – which turned out to be the civil rights leader’s final public address outside of the USA before he was assassinated barely six months later.
Reflecting on the day, Mr Nicholson said: “The segregated American South and Newcastle University were worlds apart but Dr King made the journey to the North East. Having that honour outside of America was recognition of the struggle and all the work that he’d done.
“The Vice-Chancellor asked me to gather a small group of students to meet Dr King for an hour before the ceremony, and over a cup of tea, we quizzed him about his work. When we met him, you didn’t get the feeling of any self-importance – he just seemed like an ordinary man.
“But once he started his speech – in his southern Baptist Minister voice, and the words he spoke – it was really inspirational and it was clear to see why he was the leader of the civil rights movement in America at the time.”
Former presidents together
Coming back to Newcastle University to film the video gave Mr Nicholson the opportunity to meet the outgoing President of Newcastle University Students’ Union, Jack Taylor, who also contributed to the films.
Jack commented: “It was fantastic to meet Nick and hear about his time at Newcastle. Having great memories of the University and city is something that many alumni have in common, but it was also fascinating to hear some of the similarities and differences that epitomised our times at Newcastle.”
He added: “Without a doubt, the fact that Dr King came to Newcastle has to inspire you – the 50th anniversary of his visit is a timely reminder of the work that he did and an opportunity to ask how far we have come in 50 years.
“There is no doubt that we have started making improvements – it’s fantastic that equality and diversity are on the agenda now but there are still significant areas that could be improved. It’s up to all of us, but particularly young people since we’re the ones who will shape the society we want, to make it a reality.”
Also present at the 1967 ceremony was Paul Barry, who was the photographer and picture editor for the university’s student newspaper, The Courier. In the video, Mr Barry relates how hearing Dr King’s speech inspired him to get involved with a variety of social justice campaigns throughout his career.
“I was really privileged to be able to attend the ceremony,” Mr Barry said. “The speech itself was life-changing – the sense that you can’t change people’s hearts but you can change the law is something that I’ve taken with me for the whole of my life.
“I’ll always remember Dr King’s inspiration on that day in 1967, it has never left me. That speech and the reaction of the people there and those that read about it afterwards I think was just monumental, life-changing for a lot of people.”
Alongside alumni who were present at the 1967 ceremony, the videos also feature current students at Newcastle University talking about the impact Dr King’s work has had on them.
The videos form part of Freedom City 2017 – a city-wide programme reflecting on the themes that Dr King talked about in his acceptance speech: ‘the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war’.
Taking place across Newcastle and Gateshead throughout the year, Freedom City 2017 is bringing together diverse communities across the North East alongside international artists, musicians, filmmakers and academics for a wide-ranging programme of events.
One of the highlights of the programme will be Freedom on the Tyne, a unique afternoon of music, theatre, dance and art commemorating the courage and sacrifice of those involved in the long march for civil rights around the world.
Taking place on Sunday 29 October throughout Newcastle city centre, Freedom on the Tyne will feature a cast of thousands made up from local communities, working with professional artists and performers.
To bring the event to life, there will be opportunities for community groups and the general public throughout the summer to get involved and find out more.
To view the Newcastle University alumni recalling the Dr King honorary degree ceremony, and for more information about Freedom on the Tyne, including sign up details, visit www.freedomcity2017.com