Sometimes you really can see it all ... if you live long enough.
For 91-year-old J. Lawrence Burkholder, president of Goshen College from 1971 to 1984, being a witness to history seems almost commonplace, as he was present for several of the most historic and world-changing events of the 20th century.
China’s Tiananmen Square confrontation in 1989 — Burkholder was there.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany that same year — Burkholder was there.
But there is one historic event that Burkholder never thought he would live to see —the inauguration of the United States’ first black president a day after celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Barack Obama will be inaugurated Tuesday.
A Mennonite and longtime peace activist, Burkholder was an active participant in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s leading up to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It was during this time, while teaching as a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, that Burkholder first became enmeshed in the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. It is a philosophy that would dramatically shape his focus in later life.
“It was March 1964, and I was actually teaching a course in Moral Philosophy at Harvard when I heard that something unusual was going to happen in St. Augustine, Fla., so my wife and I decided to go to Florida during the spring vacation,” Burkholder said. “... A general appeal was made to all students to go south to St. Augustine, because Martin Luther King was going to be there.”
Upon arriving in St. Augustine, Burkholder met up with a woman named Mary Peabody. She was the 72-year-old mother of Massachusetts Gov. Endicott Peabody who was preparing to participate in an illegal bi-racial sit-in at the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge restaurant with a friend from Cambridge and five local African-American women.
“When we came to the restaurant, we just walked in and sat down, and the place became quite — utterly quiet,” Burkholder said. “The manager of the restaurant came and asked us, very politely, whether we would please leave, because as you know it was against the law, and Mrs. Peabody said that we had come to be served and would remain there.”
After being asked several more times to leave the restaurant, the group was arrested and jailed for several days, igniting protests and news interviews that would be heard across the nation.
“Mrs. Peabody was taken outside where she spoke to CBS and was interviewed,” Burkholder said. “This was around the time when King was getting to be pretty well known, so she told them what had happened, and there was a pretty strong reaction from all over the country.
“At that time I was taken up to a jail cell, and I kept hearing this strange noise in the background. That noise outside consisted of young people. Apparently the word had gotten around, and young people were coming in droves to the jail to protest.”
In less than 24 hours, the local jail had been filled to capacity with everyone from students to well known professors who had been arrested for protesting.
“My cellmate was the preacher to the University of Yale,” Burkholder said with a laugh. “People came in from all over, and during our time in the jail, we had some very good discussions about this whole civil rights movement.
“None of us were afraid, even though it was fairly early in the civil rights movement, because we knew the whole nation was watching, and we knew what conversations were going on between King and the president.”
Dining with King
While King never did make it to St. Augustine that weekend, Burkholder said it was his experience in that restaurant and jail that really sparked his interest and enthusiasm for the movement.
After that King became a frequent visitor to Harvard. During King’s visits, Burkholder was usually invited to dine with him.
“He was very intriguing,” Burkholder said. “He talked very slowly, and considered every word he said. I didn’t know what topics to introduce, so our conversations were a little bit stilted. We mostly ate and talked about little things, but I knew at the time that I was having dinner with one of the greatest men in the world.”
On the day following King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Burkholder said he was asked by the president of Harvard University to speak in the Memorial Church at a service in King’s honor.
“That was fairly difficult for me,” Burkholder said. “It would be easy today, because everybody knows Martin Luther King, but they didn’t know him then, so I had to estimate what I thought the future of his movement might look like, and I exalted it.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life.”
A long journey
Looking back now on his many years of work and experience in the fight for civil rights in this country, Burkholder said he is surprised at where that journey has taken both him and the nation.
“These days, I often wonder, is it truly possible that we have a president-elect that is black?” Burkholder said. “I would not have believed it if you’d told me all those years ago that such a thing could happen.
“It’s so wonderful that this nation has been able to do this from a civil rights point of view.”
As for what he feels such an event says about the future of this country with regard to race relations and civil rights, Burkholder said he is optimistic, but in the end only time will tell how things turn out.
“I think it’s great, frankly. I just hope Obama and the nation can make it,” Burkholder said. “He’s responsible for turning the economy around, and he’s out of money before he even starts. He’s being expected to bring in a new age, and I don’t know where he gets the strength to do it all. I have some ideas, but he’s got more on him now than Martin Luther King did, that’s for sure.
“In some sense, he’s the leader of the world now, and I wish him well in every respect.”