Forgotten Martin Luther King Jr. speech in Cape May finds new life

Anna Wright (center), 89, of Newtown Square, who was in attendance 60 years earlier when Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a convention of Quakers in Cape May, stands to join in singing “America the Beautiful” at the conclusion of the city’s commemoration of the anniversary June 27, 2018. With her are her daughter Lisa Lister and nephew James TerBush.

CAPE MAY — For the last 60 years, Anna Wright has held onto a memory of a 29-year-old Southern pastor who brought his messages of nonviolence and social injustice to the Shore at Cape May.

“The old convention hall was packed,” said Wright, who lives in Newtown Square, Delaware County. “Wall-to-wall people. The doorway was jammed. Even on the outside of the building, people are at the windows, trying to see or hear.”

On Wednesday, the exact date of the anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s address to a convention of Quakers, the city celebrated the man and a moment that was almost lost to history. This time, it was held at the new Convention Hall.

“I grew up in Cape May,” said Mayor Clarence Lear. “And nobody knew about it.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Anna Wright, 89, of Newtown Square, who was in attendance 60 years earlier when Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a convention of Quakers in Cape May, is presented with flowers after speaking at the city’s commemoration of the anniversary June 27, 2018. With her is nephew James TerBush,

Wright’s nephew James TerBush emailed Lear in January.

His aunt, he wrote, had said she attended a speech by King in Cape May on June 27, 1958.

Lear said that at first he questioned it. He had never heard the story before, and he was born a month after the event occurred.

“Dr. King and Cape May, it didn’t seem to fit,” he said. “I always think about Dr. King in the ’60s, but back then the Quakers realized the value of his message.”

After digging through historical archives, Wright’s story was found to be accurate. And as far as anyone can tell, she is the only living person who was there.

Wright, who spoke at the celebration Wednesday, said the conference, which stretched over the entire week and included various speeches and other voluntary activities, was lightly attended.

“But the night that Dr. King was speaking at the old convention hall [the former Cape May Convention Center on Beach Avenue], it must have been that nearly everybody that was at that conference was at the hall to see him,” she said.

Camera icon Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College
Martin Luther King Jr. was 29 years old when he spoke at the Friends General Conference in Cape May in 1958.

An estimated 3,200 people attended the speech, which Wright said was the largest crowd at that point to attend an event at the conference, which was held in Cape May from 1928 to 1962.

“A member of my family was actually afraid that the building was overloaded and that we would be in the ocean,” she said.

Wright said that one of the leaders of the conference, Clarence Pickett, “said that night that Dr. King was a man with a voice that is heard around the world.”

“His message to us as friends was clear and to the point,” she said. “But it was not just his words. It was the way he said them. There he was, a young man of 29 years old, speaking with such eloquence.”

A quote from the speech was emblazoned on a plaque that will be on permanent display in the hall.

“Social progress does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,” King said, according to the Quaker meeting recap from that year. “It comes only though persistent work and the tireless efforts of dedicated individuals.”

“When Dr. King’s speech was over, it was a standing ovation like I had never seen,” Wright said. After the speech, people crowded around King, vying for his attention. The crowd was so deep, she said, she never had the chance to shake his hand. Or to express her admiration.

But for the last 60 years she has remembered that moment.

And, she said, “it’s important for all of you to remember.”