Martin Luther King Comes to Yale
Essay by David George Ball, James City

In my junior year in college I invited a little-known minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at a lecture series I organized. He had just published a book called Stride Toward Freedom about a boycott of public buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregation.
To my horror, while promoting the book in a Harlem department store, he was stabbed in the chest. When I wrote to convey my sympathy, my letter reached him in Harlem hospital. He replied, “As soon as I return to my office in Montgomery, I shall consult my schedule to see what dates are available for a visit to Yale. I am sorry that it had to be postponed.”

Eventually his secretary rescheduled his visit for January, 1959. She warned me, “Since his hospitalization, it is necessary that he get at least one hour bed rest every afternoon.” 

My committee and I waited anxiously for him on the windy platform of the New Haven railroad station. When he alighted from the train with a warm, healthy smile, we stepped forward with relief. He greeted us with firm handshakes. We escorted him to the master’s house at Pierson college, where I had arranged for him to stay and he joined us for dinner in the Pierson dining room. 

I took a big chance in putting on a lecture series. I was afraid nobody would show up. Many of my fellow students seemed more interested in drinking beer than a program put on by a penniless student, who was one of the few immigrants in Yale College. To my surprise and great relief over 2,000 of them packed into a vast ornate auditorium known as Woolsey Hall. 

Martin Luther King captivated the huge crowd with his passionate belief in the effectiveness of nonviolence and the use of legal and moral force to obtain rights for black people. We listened in hushed silence. At the end of his speech the audience and I leaped to our feet applauding ecstatically. Thrilled to the core, I heard a call I did not fully understand. 

The next day walking across the campus after a visit to the divinity school, I asked Dr. King, “Would you like to take a nap this afternoon?” 

He replied, “That won’t be necessary. I never expected to spend to celebrate my 30th birthday at Yale.” It was January 15, 1959. After taking him back to the Pierson master’s house I quietly purchased a cake with icing and rounded up my student committee. He laughed in surprise when we marched in and sang, “Happy birthday.” As I helped him cut the cake, someone snapped a photo of us. 

That was the last picture of me as the schoolboy who had arrived on the SS United States on a blistering hot day in July 1954 from a grammar school in Gloucester, England. My father was a humble nonconformist preacher, but the real force in my life was my ex-missionary mother. I enrolled in the pastors’ course at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Two years later when I won a scholarship to Yale, I chose to major in English to prepare me for the ministry, just as my mother wished. 

I admired Martin Luther King as a person who not only trusted God, but also took action outside the church door. I wanted to know more about his ideas for influencing change. A few days after his visit I switched my major to political science. 

Fired with enthusiasm, I worked on a major research paper about a way to defeat the use of pupil placement laws in the South as a device to avoid integration. A professor in the Yale law school served as my advisor. I didn’t mention the change in my major to my mother, because I still planned to become a minister and I didn’t want her to get upset. 

The photograph jolts me today with the reminder that I had never met a black person before I came to America. It takes my breath away to see myself cutting a birthday cake with someone who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. What shocks me most when I look back is to realize that he, the champion of civil rights, propelled me toward a totally different kind of service. 

In my senior year I decide to go to law school, vowing like Martin Luther King, Jr. to help make the world a better place. This was not good enough for my mother, who declared angrily, “You have been led astray.” But I didn’t feel led astray at all. 

A few days after the birthday party, my guest had sent me a warm note referring to my desire to write a paper on desegregation in the schools, which might involve traveling to Alabama to gather information. He said, “If you decide to come to Montgomery, please let me know and I will do all that I possibly can to make your visit enjoyable.” Although I didn’t go to Montgomery, he gave me the courage to dream of a different calling. The course of my life had changed forever.