Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

January 19, 2009

Former Goshen College president recalls his role in Civil Rights movement

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.

Headed south

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.

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