Caltech Remembers Martin Luther King’s First Visit to Pasadena, His 1958 Visit to its Campus

Published : Monday, January 20, 2020 | 1:58 AM

Photo: Image courtesy Caltech Y

The Caltech community looks back today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to the civil rights leader’s first visit to Pasadena. The trip brought King to the Caltech campus, where, as a young emerging national advocate for equality, he met with Institute students.

King was only 29 when he visited Caltech in the winter of 1958, one of his three very memorable visits to Pasadena. He returned to Pasadena twice later — once in 1960 and again in 1965 — to preach at Pasadena’s Friendship Baptist Church in 1960.

King was invited to the campus as part of the Caltech Y’s “Leaders for America Program.” The program, established in 1951, brought known personalities to the Caltech campus to address and mingle with the students.

Wes Hershey, the Caltech Y’s former programs director, was instrumental in bringing King to the Pasadena campus.

Though young, King was already widely known for working to organize the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and for being among the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

King spoke three times at Caltech, at Dabney Hall and the Athenæum. His final speech was called “Progress in Race Relations.”

A Caltech campus news story published in January, 1998 recalled how several Caltech personalities met with King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, and what impressions they had during the three days that the couple spent on campus.

Among those mentioned in the story were Kent Frewing, a Caltech alumnus, later an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was the student that drove Dr. and Mrs. King to campus from downtown Beverly Hills during that visit; Jackie Bonner, retired editor of Caltech’s research magazine Engineering and Science, who hosted dinner for the Kings; Frank Dryden, a 1954 Caltech graduate who was active in alumni activities at the time of the visit; and emeritus geography professor Ned Munger, who talked extensively with King and discussed his proposal theory that South Africa’s white minority government could eventually turn leadership over to the black majority.

Among the activities these personalities recalled was King’s speech before about 200 faculty members, students and community members, where he “basically gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” recalls Dryden.

After the speech, Dryden went to the front to meet King.

“He was very accessible, very impressive,” Dryden said.

Munger recalled how he told King that he thought there was going to be a peaceful resolution in South Africa, and how King indicated he wasn’t immediately convinced about this.

Indeed, black rule in that country did not take place until three decades after King was assassinated.


A version of this story was first published in Pasadena Now in January, 2017.

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