MLK in Knoxville: Live as brothers or perish as fools

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, West Knoxville

The day is now past and most of the local festivities celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have wrapped for the moment, until we get to the MLK parade with the Juneteenth celebrations in six months. During his short life, the civil rights leader had but a handful of visits to Knoxville, but each of them was memorable.

Of particular note was his commencement speech to the graduating class of Knoxville College in 1960. While his appearance gained some passing interest in The Knoxville Journal and The Knoxville News-Sentinel, the most significant coverage of the event was in Knoxville College’s student newspaper, The Aurora.

There are over 900 pages of The Aurora available online via The Calvin McClung Historical Collection at the Knox County Public Library. The June 1960 edition contains the coverage of MLK’s appearance on Memorial Day (May 30) that year. The crowd estimated at 2,500 gathered on the lawn at McKee Hall to hear him speak.

The crowd at MLK’s speech at Knoxville College. The caption notes that people in the community gathered on their porches to hear Dr. King speak.

His speech was titled “It’s a Great Time to be Alive,” and he told the graduates they were “finishing college in one of the most momentous ages of human history.” His words could not have been more prophetic, as the tumultuous decade put the accelerator on the space race and civil rights, but also brought the Viet Nam war and Dr. King’s assassination along with those of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.

King spoke of the old order of “colonialism, imperialism and slavery” and that young Black Americans were “tired of being trampled by oppression, dominated politically and humiliated economically. It’s a great time to be alive even to witness the social evolution.”

He went on to tell the 43 members of that graduating class to “be ready to enter the doors when they open or you have flunked your entrance exam in the University of Integration.”

King emphasized three points to the young people leaving college and entering an uncertain world:

  1. To rise above individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity
  2. To live as brothers or perish as fools
  3. To achieve excellence in our various fields of endeavor

As usual, King emphasized moving toward change through non-violence. His speech at Knoxville College occurred just a few months after the first sit-ins began at a North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter in February. The first sit/stand-ins began that summer in Knoxville following his appearance at Knoxville College. Black people are sitting, he said, because they are “demanding respect.”

McKee Hall, the crown jewel of the Knoxville College campus, sits quietly, overlooking the lawn that hasn’t seen a graduating class in years. But if those walls could talk, what they could speak of the history that happened there.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

Source: The Aurora, June 1960, McClung Digital Collection; Photos by Pete Bradby

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