PASADENA—The Caltech community this Martin Luther King Day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the slain civil rights leader's visit to campus.
At 12:15 p.m. Monday in Ramo Auditorium, Los Angeles Dodgers vice president Tommy Hawkins will be the featured guest at the first of two Caltech events celebrating the King legacy. A former professional athlete and the leader of last year's Jackie Robinson 50th anniversary tribute, Hawkins has titled his speech "Martin Luther King Jr.: Star of an American Revolution."
King spent three days in the student dorms and faculty club at Caltech during February 1958. Already widely known for leading the boycott of Montgomery's segregated public buses, King met with a number of faculty, students, and staff during his visit.
Kent Frewing, today a JPL engineer, was the student who drove King and his wife to campus from downtown Beverly Hills. Frewing said the 1950 Ford he had at the time became something of a family heirloom because King had once rode in it.
"My kids knew all about that car carrying Dr. King," Frewing says. "In fact, my wife will probably talk to her third-grade class about it today in La Cañada.
Frewing says he can't recall the conversation he had in the drive between Beverly Hills and Pasadena, but said he was quite aware of the civil rights movement and the Montgomery bus boycott at the time of King's visit.
"We were all very favorably impressed," Frewing says. "In fact, I can't recall any of the other visitors we had in the Leaders of America program except Dr. King. We were all very pleased that we were able to get him to come.
"Here was a moral leader that we were able to bring to campus."
Jackie Bonner, the retired editor of the Caltech's research magazine Engineering and Science, also remembers the visit quite well.
"Oh sure, I had him over to my house for dinner," she says.
Mrs. Bonner says she can't recall the exact dinner conversation, but that it obviously concerned civil rights. "I'm 80 now, and I'm afraid the details are gone. But I do remember the students being very impressed."
Bonner says she also went to lunch with Coretta Scott King at Margaret Fleming's house in Pasadena one day while King was meeting with students. Mrs. Fleming was a benefactor of the Caltech Y.
Frank Dryden, a 1954 Caltech graduate who was active in alumni activities at the time of the visit, attended King's keynote speech at the Athenaeum.
"Basically, he gave the 'I Have a Dream' speech," Dryden said, adding that about 200 faculty, students, and others were in attendance.
After the speech, Dryden went to the front to meet King. "He was very accessible, very impressive," he said.
"He came to spread the word," recalls emeritus geography professor Ned Munger, who talked extensively with King during the visit and accompanied him on several of his campus meetings.
At the time, Munger was a visiting professor who had proposed a theory that South Africa's white minority government could eventually turn leadership over to the black majority with relatively minor problems.
"I think we're going to have a peaceful resolution in South Africa," Munger said he told King.
"I think that's not possible," King replied at first. But after hearing some of the reasons Munger had proposed for his thesis, he eventually became more encouraged and said, "Well, that's hopeful."
Nonetheless, King thought that black rule in South Africa would be quite difficult to accomplish, Munger recalls, and indeed it did not take place until three decades after King was assassinated.
"I was encouraged by his reaction," Munger said a few days before the 1998 MLK celebration. "I met very few people in those days who thought that the white majority would give up power in South Africa and that the blacks would not persecute them."
As for the students who met King, Munger said that the reaction was typically one of disbelief. "I was struck by how naive the students were. When King told them about segregation in the South, they would say, 'How can people act so badly?'
"They were also impatient," Munger adds, explaining that the students were not only irritated that segregation and the Jim Crow laws could go on unabated in the South, but that they also seemed somewhat perplexed by King's ministerial speech cadences.
"I guess there's a conflict between Californian and Southern ways of speaking," Munger says. "King would wax philosophically and biblically on many questions, and some of the students wanted to get to the point."
Munger says that King also found it necessary to go into a great deal of detail about Southern culture since the Civil War, since he felt that race relations in America were very complicated.
In retrospect, Munger says that he clearly recalls his meetings with King, and at the time felt a great deal of pride that King thought his predictions on South Africa might come to pass.
"I was very struck," he says.