Fifty years ago, on May 17, 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made a historic speech in front of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley before a crowd of more than 7,000. Calling Berkeley students “our nation’s conscience,” he railed against the Vietnam War, urging those listening to protest and calling the war “a mad adventure” and a “tragic, unjust, and evil war.”
Just a few feet away on the Sproul steps was Dick Beahrs, then a junior, who had arranged the visit in his role as president of the Interfraternity Council. The council had sponsored King’s visit as part of a civil rights speaker series that also brought Robert F. Kennedy and Stokely Carmichael. Beahrs had a close-up view of the event, even driving King to and from his hotel in San Francisco.
‘You have been the conscience of our nation’
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, the ASUC recently hosted the rededication of Helen Nestor’s historic photograph of him in his namesake building, the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, and played a recording of King’s speech in its entirety. Read more…
A lesser-known story about King’s visit was that the campus’ Afro-American Student Union had quietly boycotted the speech, and that King met privately with the black students after the speech. King had received strong criticism from some of his supporters, including the NAACP, who argued that he should maintain his focus on domestic civil rights rather than aligning with the anti-war movement.
Now a 72-year-old retired media executive, Beahrs sat down with Sandra Bass, director of UC Berkeley’s Public Service Center, the campus’ hub for volunteerism and civic engagement, to remember King’s historic visit. As the Public Service Center gears up to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, Beahrs met with Bass to recall his role in arranging King’s speech and King’s private meeting with black students who had boycotted the speech. Beahrs also shares the beginnings of his lifelong commitment to public service, and his family’s long-standing support for Berkeley.
Sandra Bass: What Berkeley was like in 1967?
Dick Beahrs: The Free Speech Movement had occurred and that shook me up. I came from a conservative home in Palo Alto. And one of the things I was taken aback by was that public figures wouldn’t come to Berkeley to speak. They absolutely would not do it. So I took that upon myself as an objective. I got Robert Kennedy to come, and I got King to come.
How was King persuaded to come to Berkeley?
Thelton Henderson, (a 1955 graduate in political science and law graduate in ‘62; now a prominent African American federal judge in San Francisco) played a very key role in getting King here. Someone introduced me to Thelton, and Thelton knew King well and I talked to him about trying to get King here. He was extremely helpful. It was a very long process.
My friend Terry Myers (’67) and I went over to hear King speak at a black church in the city. I’ll never forget it. His whole cadence was different in a black church than it was in Berkeley. I thought it was brilliant. So we went and heard the speech. We didn’t talk to King that day but talked to some of his deputies and said how much we wanted him to come to Berkeley. So then he arranged to come.
There was a student group called the Afro-American Student Union, and I knew some of the students and they asked if I would arrange a meeting for them with King after the talk. So I worked on it, and we did.
Remembering King’s speech:
So [King] spoke at Sproul Plaza. It was unbelievable. It was packed. I was on the Sproul Hall steps, and there was just a sea of people everywhere. Then after the talk, I took him to Alumni House and he went in and met with the black students. And I sat outside waiting for him with my then-girlfriend Carolyn (now we’ve been married almost 50 years), and we waited outside to drive him back to S.F.
On the drive back to the city: “He was shaken”
He came out [of the meeting] and it was an amazing experience because I’d dealt with a lot of politicians coming to Berkeley, senators and the like. They were politicians — but King wasn’t. He came out of the meeting with the black students and he was shaken. Bear in mind that this was 1967, there was Stokely Carmichael, real militancy and hostility. And we’re driving back to the city, and King was talking about how upset he was about how alienated the black students were feeling. He was really upset — he said to them, ”You can’t disengage, you’ve got to be involved.” That impressed me very much.
How did you get involved in public service?
I was always very interested in politics, but as far as elected office, after that year [when I served as ASUC president in 1967–68] I was done, done, done. I had no interest in politics. But I got very interested in public policy — hunger issues, and environmental issues. My interest grew out of a trip to Africa in 1971 when Carolyn and I traveled and hitchhiked around the continent visiting around 25 countries. We were fascinated by the challenges and the tremendous efforts being undertaken to build just societies by the African people.
One involvement led to another as I became involved with the World Agroforestry Centre, the UN Hunger Task Force, and other efforts. Simultaneously, I became increasingly involved with the College of Natural Resources at Berkeley, as I came to appreciate how much the university has to offer the world in addressing environmental and hunger issues.
How did King’s visit affect you and build your commitment to public service? King’s speech affects me to this day. In the era of Donald Trump, it is clearly essential for us to redouble our efforts to combat “alternative facts” and support the type of moral revolution that King called for.
About Dick Beahrs: With his wife Carolyn, a 1967 graduate, he established the Beahrs’ Environmental Leadership Program in the College of Natural Resources’ and serves on the program’s executive committee. He is currently co-chair of the CNR Advisory Board Development Committee. He is a trustee emeritus of the UCB Foundation. Dick, Carolyn and their four children all have Berkeley degrees. Dick Beahrs served on the United Nations Hunger Task Force and as a trustee of the School of Management at St. Petersburg University in Russia, and as chairman of the Arbor Day Foundation. He is now retired and formerly served as president of Courtroom Television Network and the Comedy Channel. He also worked at Time Warner Division Home Box Office, the Comedy Channel and Sports Illustrated and Life magazines. He also served on the Board of Trustees of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and the Near East Foundation in New York. Beahrs served as President of Cal’s student body and Interfraternity Council as an undergrad and earned an MBA at Adelphi University.
About the Public Service Center: Born out of the passion of students committed to creating a more just and equitable world, the Public Service Center is the heart of civic engagement and the public service voice at Berkeley. Through the center, students, faculty, and communities work together to promote transformative social change and grow our next generation of civic leaders. In 2017, the Public Service Center (formerly CalCorps) celebrates its 50th anniversary. Learn more at publicservice.berkeley.edu