BIDDEFORD — Georgette Sutton had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before she found herself sitting in a crowded gymnasium, transfixed by the powerful voice of the prominent civil rights leader.
It was May 1964, the height of the civil rights movement, but that was a topic far from Sutton’s mind. She had grown up in rural Jay, where there were no black families, and was busy at home in Biddeford raising seven daughters.
But when King spoke during his first and only visit to Maine, Sutton was there at the urging of her husband. She couldn’t help but pay attention.
“His voice … you just had to listen,” said Sutton, now 83. “It was an unbelievable moment. You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet.”
The same year King was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he traveled to Maine to speak at St. Francis College in Biddeford – now the University of New England – and Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
That visit on May 7 was an exceptional moment for a small Catholic men’s college tucked along the coast of Biddeford. It was also a notable moment for a state far removed from much of the activity around the civil rights movement. Only about 3,300 of Maine’s more than 969,000 residents back then were black. Biddeford had three black residents in 1960, according to census records.
The University of New England will mark King’s visit Monday night with a celebration in the building where he spoke in 1964. Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday.
“It was quite an event for a tiny college,” said Jim Beaudry, 90, who was the athletic director at St. Francis in 1964. “It got you believing. For days afterward, the students in particular were so much in awe.”
That King, less than a year after his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., would take the time to visit St. Francis surprised even the professors who invited him.
Al Poulin and David DeTurk, young and enthusiastic professors organizing the school’s annual symposium, decided if the topic was going to be civil rights, there was no better person to speak than King. Sitting at his kitchen table, DeTurk called King in Atlanta, expecting to speak to a secretary. Instead, King answered the phone and quickly accepted the invitation to visit Maine.
“He was not, in any sense of the word, a rabble rouser. The rousing part of Martin Luther King was in what he stood for, what he exemplified, what he said and what he did,” DeTurk, who has since died, said in a documentary made a decade ago by a UNE student. “He made a very lasting impression. It was an amazing and exceptional experience for our students.”
On May 7, the second day of the two-day symposium, the St. Francis campus was crawling with police officers, media from as far away as New York, students and local residents who flocked to Biddeford to hear King and other civil rights leaders speak. Admission to King’s speech cost $1.
When King arrived on campus, he asked the Rev. Clarence LaPlante, president of St. Francis, for a quiet place to collect his thoughts. LaPlante brought King to his own room in Stella Maris Hall, where the civil rights leader “sat in the window and just looked out and remained pensive,” LaPlante would later recall.
About 1,000 people packed into the small gymnasium in DeCary Hall to hear King speak on civil disobedience and the need to end segregation across the country.
“Segregation is on its death bed. It is still seen here, though, and it is hidden in the north,” King told the crowd. “If democracy is to live, segregation must die.”
For Robert Sheehan, then a junior studying biology at St. Francis, the visit was unforgettable.
“You were in awe to a certain extent. It was inspiring,” said Sheehan, now a dentist in Massachusetts.
Between sessions at the symposium, King would sit with students, drinking coffee and talking.
“There wasn’t a time, whether you were at lunch or a coffee break, when you weren’t part of the conversation,” he said. “(King) was a very . . . humble and compassionate person. He wasn’t someone who would come up and say he was Dr. King. It was ‘Hi, I’m Martin King.’ The humility I remember vividly.”
Sutton, who now works on the UNE switchboard, didn’t know about King’s visit until the night before, when her husband, who was the dean of students, asked her to go. They paid a baby sitter $35 – enough for a week of groceries – so they could attend. “It was a very special day and you could tell,” she said.
After the symposium, Sutton’s eyes were opened to the struggle for civil rights and she continued to follow King’s progress until his assassination on April 4, 1968.
“When he died, both my husband and I cried,” she said. “He was a husband, a father. It was so sad he was shot down. For what, I’ll never know.”
LaPlante, now 91 and living in Canada, recalled King’s visit in the student documentary. The visit was inspiring for all who heard King speak, he said.
“He spoke about nonviolence, justice and respect,” he said. “It was not fiery, it was not abrasive. It was mild and eloquent and inspiring.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: