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

Published on Monday, January 16, 2017 | 4:58 am
Photo: Image courtesy Caltech Y

The Caltech community is holding a series of events in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and particularly commemorates this year’s 59th anniversary of the slain civil rights leader’s visit to its campus.

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 Athanaeum. 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.

Caltech’s Center for Diversity has laid out a schedule of events for this week for the MLK commemoration, starting with Martin Luther King Day, which is an institute holiday.

After that, one of the activities planned for the week is a Candlelight Vigil on Tuesday, January 17, at the Red Door Café from 5:30 to 6 p.m. The event will have representatives from the Black Ladies Association at Caltech (BLAC), as well as Black Students at the California Institute of Technology (BSCIT) attending the remembrance, prayer, and a moment of silence to give recognition to MLK’s legacy.

On Wednesday, January 18, Caltech will screen the new film “Hidden Figures” that tells the story of three African-American woman who were instrumental in launching NASA’s first human space missions. This will be from 12 noon to 1 p.m. at the CSS second floor common area, where Diversity Center staff and Caltech Y will lead discussions on themes, responses and reactions to the film.

Thursday, January 19, is a relatively busy day, as the Caltech Feminist Club hosts a discussion at the CSS second floor area between 12 noon and 1 p.m., and URMs (underrepresented minorities) host a Grad/Post Doc Chat at Dabney Hall at about the same time.

Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment, delivers the MLK Day Keynote Address also on Thursday, at Dabney Hall. Lunch will be provided.

On Friday, January 20, Caltech will show an audio-visual presentation of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Red Door Café, between 12 and 1 p.m. The presentation will also include a few other King speeches, and explain why they are still significant today.

On Saturday, January 21, the Caltech community will engage in a day of social action as they prepare and serve dinner for the residents at Union Station Adult Center, at 412 S. Raymond Avenue in Pasadena, which provides shelter, meals and supportive services for more than 150 homeless men and women each year. Food and materials are provided. The event happens from 5:15 to 9:15 p.m.

For more information and advisories about Caltech’s MLK commemoration, visit

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