Martin Luther King Jr. with Winburn Thomas and Bola Ige at the Athens’ Ohio University conference in 1959 (public domain photo from Ohio University Libraries Digital Archive Collections)
Ohio Life

Martin Luther King Jr. Visits Ohio University

From Dec. 27, 1959, to Jan. 2, 1960, more than 3,600 college students gathered to consider a variety of modern topics from a Christian perspective.

For a period of seven days between late 1959 and early 1960, Ohio University in Athens welcomed 3,609 college students from across the globe to participate in the 18th Ecumenical Student Conference on the Christian World Mission. Minister and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was one of several speakers who participated in the conference.

In an April 27, 1959, article published in the Chillicothe Gazette months before the event, reporter Jack Gilbert noted that students would be converging on Athens from places like Nigeria, Nepal, Paris, Milan, Tokyo and Hong Kong to “explore the tense issues of the times,” which he noted ranged from evolving technology and race relations to militant religious groups and new nationalism.

“The church can no longer think in conventional terms,” said Margaret Flory, program chairman and secretary for student work for the United Presbyterian Church. “We must listen to what the people of the world are saying and attempt to understand the crucial world situations which are calling for a response.”

In addition to King, the conference’s featured speakers included Kermit Eby, a professor at the University of Chicago; student leader Bola Ige of Nigeria; Richard Shaull of Brazil and Rev. Harry Daniel of India.

During a press conference following his address to the assembly of students, King explained the NAACP’s goal for 1960 was to register 1 million Black Americans to vote.

“… the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘such a program will force white political leaders to give more attention to the [Black] vote in the future,’” The Newark Advocate reported in its Dec. 31, 1959, edition.

Douglas McCoard, a resident of Circleville and student at Ohio State University, attended the conference as a delegate representing the university’s Westminster Foundation. He told The Circleville Herald for its Jan. 5, 1960, edition that the conference was “an inspiring and challenging experience. It made the delegates think seriously about the problems of modern society.”