Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at St. Francis College in Biddeford in 1964. (University of New England Library collection)
Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at St. Francis College in Biddeford in 1964. (University of New England Library collection)
I had lunch more than 50 years ago with Martin Luther King Jr., during his only visit to Maine.

He and I were not alone. There were 350 students at St. Francis College, then an all-male, mostly Caucasian and Catholic liberal arts college, located on the then 250-acre coastal campus in Biddeford. It was the predecessor to today’s expanding University of New England with its 10,000 students in Biddeford, Portland, and Tangier, Morocco.

The college was conducted and owned then by the Franciscan Fathers of Maine, a band of priests, who wore long brown hooded robes with a cincture of rope wrapped at their waist from which hung three knots symbolizing poverty, chastity and obedience. Some of us from the New York City area joked the knots stood for purity, body and flavor, the Ballantine Ale slogan. The young priests got the last laugh when they snapped the thick rope at our legs.

With mostly Canadian roots, the friars, along with a bright faculty of men and women, many of whom had earned their doctorates, enjoyed teaching on the Lilliputian campus and living alongside the North Atlantic sea.

In early May of 1964, during the country’s heated civil-rights movement, the administrators canceled all classes for three days and conducted a “symposium on human rights.” Martin Luther King was the headliner.

Less than a year had passed since he delivered his “I have a dream” speech in Washington. By year’s end, he would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was approaching the height of his powers and fame and after his death in 1968 would come to be seen as the embodiment of the American Civil Rights Movement. But the movement wasn’t the work of Dr. King alone, and the slate for the May symposium included other important, if lesser-known, figures of the time: Bayard Rustin, the deputy director of the March on Washington; Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Dorothy Day, editor of The Catholic Worker.

As a student symposium-committee member I was assigned as campus host to Waldemar Roebuck, the New York regional director with Action for Interracial Understanding.

I recall he was a nice, soft-spoken, middle-aged gentleman-activist who during the daytime worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He was married and had kids at home. I remember picking him up at the airport in Portland and on the drive down to campus, trying to break the ice, I asked him if he was related to Sears-Roebuck. He laughed and we became quick buddies on the way to Biddeford. “Are there many Negro students at your school,” he asked. “Not yet,” I said.

My next fare was to be picked up at the local Greyhound Bus terminal at the Thatcher Hotel in Biddeford. He was dressed in blue jeans, work boots, a dark turtleneck covered with a denim jacket, the kind with brass buttons, and he wore a glistening smile below his modified Afro haircut.

“Hey,” he said quickly, extending a hand, which I grabbed and pumped firmly, and looked him in the eyes, with my own smile. I had seen him on TV.

“Hi, Stokely Carmichael, welcome to Maine.” He was only a year older than I and was recruiting for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He used my dorm room on campus to stash his backpack and briefcase loaded with brochures, propaganda, and applications for future SDS members. He was following Dr. King’s caravan across the country, organizing, and recruiting members faster than the salesman in the hotel lobby selling toothbrushes to those tasting the chip and dip.

He would 24 months later discard Dr. King’s non-violent civil-rights movement in favor of the closed-fisted logo on his letterhead and black-leather jacket for what he called “Black Power” and the movement that nationally grew angrier. He had changed his attitude. The fire in his belly flamed and he later joined the Black Panthers.

In 1969 he separated from the Panthers and changed his name to Kwame Ture. Then he left the country that provided him the right to express his ideas and anger for life in Guinea, teaching children. It saddened me to learn he died of cancer in Africa in the autumn of 1998 at age 51.

A pair of professors from the English Department at the college spearheaded the symposium — the poet A. Poulin Jr., an alumnus, and David DeTurk, who would later recall his decision to telephone Martin Luther King.

“Al and I were sitting in my kitchen down the Old Pool Road trying to figure out how to reach Dr. King,” he said. “We called the information operator to get the phone number of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and I dialed it. Then a deep, memorable voice answered, ‘Hello, this is Dr. King’ at which point I was thunderstruck,” said DeTurk.

DeTurk explained the proposed program, invited Dr. King to participate, and after checking his schedule Dr. King replied, “Yes, I would. I’ve never spoken in Maine.”

Dr. King had a state police escort from the airport to the campus, where the entire student body had gathered along with hundreds of others, including the national news media, at mid-morning on May 8, 1964. He asked the college president, Fr. Clarence LaPlante, O.F.M., if there was some quiet place he could visit to relax and gather his thoughts.

Fr. Clarence offered to take Dr. King to the campus friary, the residence hall of the Franciscan priests, and presented his personal suite to Dr. King. The room had a commanding view of the tidal estuary where the Saco River merges with the Atlantic Ocean.

While Dr. King rested and gathered his thoughts, Stokely Carmichael was holding a rap session in a meeting room crowded with students off the cafeteria. He was closer in age to the students than other speakers at the symposium, and his session was more energetic than sessions happening in nearby conference rooms.

At noon, the cafeteria was packed with conference participants, faculty, Franciscans, administrators, trustees, and other student committee members and campus leaders.

On their way to the scheduled luncheon Fr. Clarence walked Dr. King along the perimeter path above the marsh grasses that were turning bright green in the new season, pointing out various sea birds diving to the sea for fish or flying to the branches of the pine trees that lined the campus. It is a place of peace and tranquility.

In the cafeteria the college president introduced the participants who were seated together at a large table and then asked Dr. King to offer a prayer. As Dr. King stood, the applause grew louder in the large room. He said, “I am glad to take time off from the struggle in the South and come here among friends.”

It soon became silent and Dr. King gave thanks for being on campus and in Maine. Then he said a short prayer of thanks for the good food and new friends.

He led off the afternoon sessions saying, “The most potent weapon for the oppressed is non-violent action in their battle for civil rights.”

The gymnasium was jammed to overflowing with several hundred spectators outside, listening from speakers attached to tree limbs above the portable chairs spread out along the new green lawns between campus buildings.

He traced the history of Black people and how they “have broken loose from the Egypt of slavery.” He said Blacks felt inferior “but changing times and two world wars brought changes as the Negro migrated into the cities looking for work.”

He noted that the bus boycotts, the sit-ins, and the freedom riders all helped. “Negros cannot register to vote in some areas; economic reprisals are taken against them; even outright death faces some of them,” he said.

“God loves all his children,” he said in a quiet drawl of a Southern preacher as his dark eyes scanned the audience that remained spellbound in mesmerized silence.

It was merely months ago that he had stood at the National Mall in front of nearly millions of people hearing him talk of a dream he had. Now, in Maine, on this small, special campus he again shared that dream.

Then his voice began to roll like a late-afternoon Southern summer thunder. The baritone bellowed. His arms waved in cadence with his speech.

“Segregation is on its deathbed,” he said. “It is still here, though, and it is hidden in the North.”

Then, lifting with his tiptoes his whole body from behind the podium, extending his arms again, he intoned loudly, “If democracy is to live, segregation must die.”

In that instant, the audience sprung from their seats and roared and applauded. An echo of exuberance reverberated from outside the gymnasium.

There were evening sessions later on with prominent panelists. And the next day, small gatherings of students and professors met to discuss poignant moments from the program with history majors in one room, philosophy majors down the corridor, economics majors in another extended area, and so forth.

Theology majors met across the entrance from Decary Hall at the Queen of Peace grotto to light candles. Others gathered at the kiosk that jutted to the sea in a sheltered stone structure beyond the athletic fields known as “The Point.”

Several of us English majors journeyed downtown to Doc’s Tavern to celebrate with a round of ale.

Yet, many of us agreed our lives changed in those days. So did attitudes in the country.

Four years later on a balcony at a Memphis motel a bullet shattered a life and a dream. The shortest verse in the Bible says, “Jesus wept.” So did a nation.