UND’s Martin Luther King Jr. mystery

In 1959, King spoke via telephone to a faculty and student committee at UND. Want to learn more? So do we, and perhaps you can help

Martin Luther King Jr., 1964. Public-domain image forms part of New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Here’s what we know:

On Oct. 18, 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conducted a telephone interview with a committee of students and faculty from the United Campus Christian Fellowship at UND.

Here’s what we don’t know:

Almost everything else.

What were the circumstances of the interview? Who was present, and what was said? What kinds of questions did the UND faculty and students have, and what thoughts were on King’s mind at the time?

To the best of our knowledge, the interview on Oct. 18, 1959 was the only direct contact between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and UND. That makes it an event of tremendous historical significance for the University, said Curt Hanson, head of Special Collections for the Chester Fritz Library: “This is a big deal,” Hanson said.

“We have a number of alumni who knew or interviewed King, such as Era Bell Thompson, an editor at Ebony magazine. We know that many students, faculty and alumni took part in the civil-rights events that King helped organize, such as the March on Washington in 1963.”

But while King visited Minnesota several times, there are no reports of his visiting North Dakota, let alone Grand Forks. So, any direct contact – even by telephone – that he would have had with UND during his lifetime would be significant, Hanson said.

With that in mind, UND Today and the Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz have been engaged in a treasure hunt for the past few weeks, trying to learn more about this historic event. We have inquiries out to King archives around the country, which we’ll describe below. We’re checking to see if any alumni who took part in the interview still recall it and might describe what happened.

Dacotah yearbooks, UND directories and back issues of the Dakota Student were among the records examined in the UND Archives at the Chester Fritz Library seeking clues regarding a 1959 interview on campus, via telephone, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Today, we’re putting the question out to the UND community as well. Readers? Do you have any information about the interview that you could share, such as a grandparent’s story of “The day I talked to Martin Luther King Jr.,” or a letter or diary entry that has been passed down?

Or even, were you (or perhaps your spouse) there?

In weeks to come, UND Today will share any further information we recover, including archival records and readers’ reminiscences. We’ll also add the info to the Department of Special Collections’ now-growing historical record of the event.

Meanwhile, here are the clues that we’ve uncovered so far, as we set out with the University community to solve UND’s Martin Luther King Jr. Mystery.

The date: October 18, 1959

This story begins back in December, when a UND Today editor simply Googled the terms “Martin Luther King Jr.” and “University of North Dakota.” Martin Luther King Jr. Day was approaching, the editor knew. So, was there a previously unreported connection between King and UND that could be highlighted for a story?

Indeed there was, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. The Institute’s King Encyclopedia entry for Oct. 18, 1959, reads as follows:

“King conducts telephone interview with University of North Dakota faculty and students

“King conducts a telephone interview with a committee of students and faculty from the United Campus Christian Fellowship at the University of North Dakota.”

A little more Googling brought up the MLK Jr. Archive at Boston University’s Gotlieb Archival Research Center, where this record can be found:

Program: Undergraduate Fellowship Forums, United Campus Christian Fellowship, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, N.D.

Box 119, Folder 3

General Physical Description note – Combination printed and mimeograph pamphlet, 4p.

General note – Participated in phone interview at Corwin Hall, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, N.D. Program includes photographs of three Grand Forks churches and information about their worship services. The sponsoring group, United Campus Christian Fellowship, is only identified as UCCF in the program. See Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., 10/27/1959 from Spilman, Kenneth E.

By our reading, the record refers to a four-page program that was printed to call attention to the interview. The Chester Fritz Library has asked the Boston University Archives for a copy of this program, and is expecting to hear back soon.

Note the record’s suggestion, “See Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., 10/27/1959 from Spilman, Kenneth E.” Here’s the link to Stanford’s record of that letter, which we’re guessing is a thank-you from Kenneth Spilman to King. (The letter’s original is at BU, from where Chester Fritz Library also has asked for a copy.)

Here’s the link to an earlier letter in the BU Archive. This one’s dated Oct. 5, 1959, and as it was sent to Kenneth Spilman (the author of the presumed thank-you letter above), we suspect it was sent to finalize arrangements for the interview.

Speaking of Kenneth Spilman, he’s listed in the UND Campus Directory for 1959-60 as the United Campus Christian Fellowship Pastor. The Dacotah yearbooks of the 1958-59 and 1959-60 academic years also list the UCCF, and include the names of some student leaders. UND Today is now in the process of contacting those alums, most of whom, we’re guessing, would now be in their 80s.

And that’s about it, as far as online records and the UND Archives at the Chester Fritz Library are concerned. There’s no mention of the King interview in the Dakota Student newspaper of the time, for example. Nor was there any announcement or report in the Grand Forks Herald, according to a check of microfilm records of the Herald for the days before and after the event.

Despite searching through the Grand Forks Herald’s microfilmed issues – which are available in the Chester Fritz Library – for the days immediately before and after the Oct. 18, 1959 interview, no reports about the event could be found. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

King’s global fame today makes this silence hard to believe. But the world was a different place in 1959, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s reputation was different, too. In 1959, King was known mostly for his role in the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., which had taken place in 1955-56. But his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington still was years away, as was the 1960s-era escalation of America’s Civil Rights movement into an unstoppable moral, social and political force.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that on Oct. 18, 1959, the Grand Forks Herald did not mention that day’s upcoming telephone interview on campus with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, the paper’s banner headline on Page 1 called attention to a different UND-related event: the University’s football victory over the NDSU Bison the day before, “Sioux Gain Upset Win 20-15.”

Readers, if you have any information about the interview that you’d like to pass on, please contact Tom Dennis at UND Today or Curt Hanson at the Chester Fritz Library.  Thank you, and we’re looking forward to sharing whatever we learn!