“Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome someday.”
Nearly 100 Hobart and William Smith and Geneva community members sang the historic Freedom March hymn on Monday morning as they marched through Geneva to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The annual march began 45 years ago, just five days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when the Colleges joined members of the Geneva community in tribute to King, first by marching from the Mt. Calvary Church to City Hall, and then by listening to an address by HWS Professor of English Melvin Hill. At the same time, HWS students and Hobart Dean Richard C. DeBold were on their way back from Memphis where they had participated in a non-violent march in memory of King.
As with many colleges in the north, Hobart and William Smith students formed a chapter of the Northern Student Movement on campus in 1962. The Civil Rights group immediately found success. In its first year, HWS participated in the national movement that raised $9,000 for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee voter registration program, sent 10,000 books to Miles College in Birmingham, Ala., and began numerous tutoring programs. In Geneva, HWS students implemented a tutoring program for area school children from minority populations. On campus, members of the student body attended educational programs on discrimination and integration.
While the Northern Student Movement no longer exists, the social change these students sought to bring about in the ’60s is echoed in the work of a number of student groups on campus, and also notably through the continued commitment of many of these alums. The Colleges have become an institution pledged to social justice and equity as witnessed in the strategic planning initiatives begun in the 1990s, with the creation of the Commission on Inclusive Excellence, the Geneva Partnership, and much more.
“Today, students at HWS share a commitment to social justice and display their engagement through numerous organizational activities such as Oxfam, America Reads and Days of Service, to name a few,” explains David Luna ’14, co-president of HWS Votes, who participated in the march on Monday. “It was an honor to participate in the history that we all are still writing. Dr. King’s efforts live on, through us, through the lives we lead, and through the actions we take.”
Fifty years ago, in 1963, Joseph (now Yosaif) August ’64 was among those on campus working to open a dialogue on social issues during the Civil Rights era. As the first president of the local chapter of the Northern Student Movement, he organized several events. Among them was a symposium in Albright Auditorium on the implications of the March on Washington, from which he had just returned. The symposium was opened by HWS President Rev. Louis Hirshson and included Professors Maynard Smith and Fred Manwaring as panelists. Later that year, a demonstration on the Quad served as a protest of the killing of four girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church. The Rev. Louis Halsey, of the First Baptist Church of Geneva, D.C. Smith, an HWS history professor, and August offered reflections. August concluded the demonstration by playing his guitar and leading the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome.”
In 1964, Sue McCulloch ’65 and Joshua Chasan ’66 organized the campus group to join a number of other organizations from the region to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. In Geneva that year, Civil Rights’ buzz was elevated when Candidate for U.S. Senate Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a group outside the theatre on Exchange Street in downtown Geneva.
“I wanted to go south for the voter registration campaign ‘Mississippi Summer’ but was dissuaded by my parents,” says Chasan. “So I decided we had to do things up north. In the spring of 1963, we held a picket in front of Coxe Hall in sympathy for the demonstrators in Alabama. It was important to do something in Geneva.”
Chasan recalls his involvement with Northern Student Movement as “another step in the development of a lifelong commitment to justice and peace.”
Shortly after Kennedy’s visit, students of the Northern Student Movement welcomed the Rev. David Barrett, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, to speak on the issue of “Spiritual Responsibility in Civil Rights.” The lecture emphasized the importance of non-violence as the best approach to problem-solving.
For the next few years, HWS students continued to speak out for equality.
“At a local level, our Northern Student Movement chapter was especially committed to mentoring disadvantaged young people throughout the Geneva community,” explains Robert Skitol ’67, then-president of the Northern Student Movement. “At a macro level, we were fired up not only by Dr. King but also by John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Our hearts were broken by all three assassinations, by Vietnam and all of the darkness of the Nixon years.”
Skitol led the group to start working on two initiatives that remain today: efforts with the Geneva Human Rights Commission (GHRC) and outreach to local school children. In conjunction with the GHRC and under the direction of Professor Hill, HWS students helped conduct surveys of minority populations in Geneva. The group also worked with high school guidance counselors to provide education and career information to students with questions about topics such as financial aid.
“The contributions HWS students make to this community are enormous and varied,” says Karen Baer, executive director of today’s GHRC. “The work that migrating populations of students can achieve is very meaningful to local agencies.”
Montrose Streeter, assistant vice president for student affairs at HWS, agrees. “HWS does much on our campus and the greater Geneva community to live ‘the beloved community’ which King spoke of,” says Streeter, referring to King’s “I have a Dream” speech. Streeter is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the same fraternity as King, which was the driving force behind the construction of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C. “The efforts on the HWS campus demonstrate the commitment of individuals and groups to fulfilling the dream.”
Most recently this fall, a group of students, faculty and staff formed the Race and Racism Coalition to deepen the HWS community’s collective dialogue. Open dialogue sessions have been held with members of the campus community, including leadership from the Commission on Inclusive Excellence.
“I am hoping to have a more socially and racially aware campus,” says Shane Samuel ’13, one of the founders of the coalition. “We pride ourselves on campus diversity and the effort of the coalition is to further stimulate the racial, cultural and social dialogue that happens, so that it will be discussed more often, and more openly. Being a part of this movement has taught me the importance of using positivity to make change. Not everything has to result in a debate. Something as simple as just listening can impact the lives of many.”
Just as the students in the 1960s did, Samuel asks students to work for change. “College students should not be afraid to use their voice, which is the most powerful weapon anyone can have, to call attention to what needs to be worked on.”
The culture of working to help the next generation is witnessed in many of the hallmarks of the HWS experience. A month after King’s death in 1968, the Hobart College Student Association paid respect to King by forming the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund. The scholarship was conceived by a group of students including Student Chair Thomas Bozzoto ’68, and committee members Rodney Frelinghuysen ’69, James McGivney ’68, Sheldon Rabin ’69, Peter Tauber ’68, Richard Wasserman ’70 and James Yovanoff ’70. Ronald Berenson ’69, Frederic Sokol ’69 and Marc Weiss ’69 circulated the petition that got more than 250 signatures required to establish the fund.
The top photo features the 2013 MLK Parade as they march on Seneca Street. The other photo from a 1960s yearbook features a group photo of the Northern Student Movement at HWS.