53 Years Later: Reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.'s UB Speech

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Kleinhans Music Hall on November 9, 1967, at the invitation of UB's graduate and undergraduate student associations.

Published January 18, 2021

Dear university community,

I hope this email finds you well at the start of the New Year, and as we look toward the start of UB’s spring semester. With today’s national remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr., I hope, in equal measure, that you will set aside time to reflect on his life and legacy.

As part of this reflection, I invite each of you to listen to the speech that Dr. King delivered in Buffalo 53 years ago. As you may know, he addressed our university community, and the broader Western New York community, in the fall of 1967, at the invitation of UB’s graduate and undergraduate student associations. Dr. King frequently accepted such requests, believing, as our university community has always believed, that society’s young people are key, in his words, to “extending the frontiers of civil rights.”

In listening to this historic speech on integration, it is striking how powerfully Dr. King’s inspiring, eloquent words reverberate in contemporary ears. Consider the themes he addressed: Voting rights. Economic disparities. Racial violence. Access to a quality education. The struggle for genuine equality.

“You need only open your newspapers, or we need only turn on our televisions, day in and day out, and there’s usually something to remind us that no section of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood,” Dr. King told his audience that day.

“We have come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go before racial justice is a reality in our nation.”

A long way to go, indeed. In point of fact, Dr. King had arrived at Kleinhans Music Hall for his Buffalo address on the heels of a very different engagement: a five-day jail sentence in Birmingham County Jail—the result of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding his 1963 conviction for peacefully demonstrating against segregation in that city.

So here we are, 53 years after his visit to Buffalo, in the wake of a tumultuous year, still grappling with the inequities Dr. King compellingly articulated in his address. A week before Mississippi raised a new flag over its state Capitol—the last state to retire the Confederate insignia from its flag—we were confronted with the jarring image of a rioter carrying the Confederate battle flag through the U.S. Capitol. And today, on the cusp of a presidential transition, we find ourselves engaged anew in the soul searching that Dr. King prescribed for our nation on that November evening in Kleinhans, just five months before his assassination.

As the fractures of the past several years extend into 2021, Dr. King’s exhortations of 53 years ago remind us of our imperative today—and every day: to commemorate his legacy by contributing to the ideals of justice and equality. Our university community has a critical role to play in this regard—a role explicitly stated in our mission: “UB is a diverse, inclusive scholarly community dedicated to bringing the benefits of our research, scholarship, creative activities and educational excellence to local and global communities in ways that impact and positively change the world.”

Over the past year, I have been profoundly moved by our community’s acts of service and scholarship on behalf of the greater good. Although I have said this before, it bears repeating: Throughout these disquieting times, our entire university community has doubled down on our mission-driven priority to contribute to the welfare and well-being of the communities we serve. This is how a great university responds in time of crisis: Not by wringing our hands, but by rolling up our sleeves.

That is a response that Dr. King would no doubt appreciate. Near the end of his speech in Buffalo, he noted that, despite our nation’s deeply entrenched societal ills, he firmly believed we would achieve equity: “I still have faith in the future, and I will not yield to the politics of despair,” he said. In concluding his speech, Dr. King delivered his famous words:

“We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

As you consider your role in realizing Dr. King’s dream, I echo my invitation to listen to his UB speech. It is not only a stirring oration and a significant historical university artifact, but an evocative message with timely relevance for our 21st-century world.


Satish K. Tripathi