Rev. Martin Luther King talks with Williams College students during his visit to Williamstown in April 1961.
Rev. Martin Luther King talks with Williams College students during his visit to Williamstown in April 1961. (Eagle file)

PITTSFIELD -- Two years before his famous "I Have a Dream" speech and seven years to the month before being cut down by an assassin's bullet, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Berkshire County and gave three talks to Williams College students in a single day to explain his ideas on civil disobedience.

"Frankly, we are breaking laws in the South," King told one rapt audience at the college in Williamstown on April 16, 1961. "But there are two types of laws -- just laws and unjust laws. I believe that if society brings into being unjust laws, a moral man has no alternative than to rise up."

Six months earlier, King had backed up those words when he was arrested, along with about 300 other protesters, during a sit-in at the segregated restaurant at Rich's, a department store in Atlanta. King was sentenced to six months of hard labor at the Georgia State Prison, but was released through the intervention of then-presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. observance culminated in local and national events honoring the slain civil rights leader, but also saw the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president. At the ceremonial inauguration, Obama took the oath using a Bible that had been owned by King, with many Americans moved by the reminder of how far the country has come since the 1960s.

King's visit to Williams College in April 1961 was part of a barnstorming tour of colleges in Western Massachusetts. His visit to Williams came a day after he was at Smith (where his daughter, Yolanda, would later receive her bachelor's degree) and a day before an appearance at Amherst College.

At Williams, King addressed a dinner for a student religious group, gave a sermon at the college chapel, and participated in a question-and-answer session with students. In total, more than 1,000 people saw him during his visit to the school.

King told his listeners that the idea behind the sit-ins concerned resistance without violence, hatred of segregation without hatred of the segregationist, and a desire to raise the consciousness of the opponent rather than to humiliate him, according to a Berkshire Eagle article that appeared the next day. The reporter described King, then 32, as "a short, handsome man" who was "an intense, direct and inspiring speaker."

The sit-ins of segregated lunch counters began in 1960 with four black college students in Greensboro, N.C., and quickly spread throughout the South.

"This movement is more than a lot of noise about hamburger. I don't think these students are hungry. It's a demand for respect," King told his audience.

King invoked the Boston Tea Party in his discussion, calling it "one of the highest expressions of civil disobedience" and said that "those of us who break segregation laws feel we are in noble company."

The response from the students was overwhelming.

"Dr. King's talk at the dinner drew a standing ovation of more than a minute for its spiritual and intellectual quality," the Eagle reporter, Arthur Myers, wrote.

It would be three more years before a federal Civil Rights Bill was passed that banned discrimination against blacks at hotels and restaurants, barred employers from discriminating based on race and allowed the federal government to sue school systems that refused to desegregate. King continued to fight for the rights of minorities and the underclass until his murder on April 4, 1968 as he stood on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tenn.

In 1974, Massachusetts, along with Connecticut, passed laws making his birthday a state holiday a decade before it became a federal holiday. Illinois was the first state to make King's birthday a legal holiday.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.