SF State professor remembers fateful encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Myron Lunine continues the beloved civil rights leader’s legacy
In the spring of 1959, Myron Lunine was asked to guide a visiting speaker around his college campus. But in a way, the visitor ended up guiding him — for the rest of his life.
The speaker was a 30-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He’d been invited by the Indian government to visit universities in the country, including New Delhi’s Indian School of International Studies, which Lunine was attending as a Fulbright scholar.
“He was known as the American Gandhi. He was very controversial at home but very much admired around the world,” recalls Lunine, a professor emeritus and lecturer in San Francisco State University’s School of Humanities and Liberal Studies. “He was a great speaker, but unlike his rhetorical or oratorical voice, he was personally a very modest guy, very soft-spoken and quiet in person.”
Lunine says King was especially quiet after giving a speech about nonviolent activism to 700 students and research fellows. During a Q&A discussion, a South African activist challenged him, asserting that he would be killed if he tried to lead a nonviolent boycott in his country. “What have you got to say to that, Mr. King?” the activist asked him.
“King didn’t answer. He was uncharacteristically quiet,” said Lunine. “Like his model Gandhi, King had been so busy organizing and mobilizing and being in jail that he hadn’t had time to think about the universality of nonviolent action. Is it a universal thing or dependent on circumstances? What is the real cost of freedom?”
These are questions that Lunine has posed to his students throughout his many years as an educator. Still active at 89, Lunine has made it his life’s work to share the history of nonviolent activists like King in the hopes that future generations will embrace their ideals.
“I've been trying to teach students about King ever since I met him,” he said.
In the 1960s, as a professor at Fisk University in Nashville, Lunine created an honors program for students to study King and was heavily involved in the civil rights movement, working with student organizations and activists at the predominantly black college. On April 4, 1968, nearly 10 years after meeting King, Lunine was teaching a class when he heard that the civil rights leader had been shot on a motel balcony in Memphis.
“We knew he was shot, but we didn’t know anything further,” he said.
He then recalls asking the distraught and saddened students “What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free?”
“And right at that moment, someone burst into the room with the news ‘King is dead,’” Lunine said. “There was an immediate emotional devastation … I dismissed the class.”
Lunine would go on to become the founding dean of the Honors and Experimental College at Kent State University in Ohio. On May 4, 1970, he would experience more personal loss when during a mass protest against U.S. bombings in Cambodia, members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds into the crowd killing four students. Two of those students were Lunine’s.
“I went to two funerals,” he said. “You know, years later I also learned that the South African man that challenged King after his speech in India also ended up being killed after trying nonviolent action … He was tragically correct.”
Despite all the heartbreak, Lunine tries to remain hopeful and upbeat.
“I’m an optimist because there’s no alternative,” he said.
That optimism has fueled Lunine’s academic research into nonviolent action and his work with a host of well-known community activists, among them the families of both King and Gandhi. Along the way he has helped to create new curricula based on nonviolent action at various colleges, including the University of Colorado, Hampshire College and Western College of Miami University. Lunine and his family finally settled down in Berkeley in 1980 and during his five years as San Francisco State’s dean of undergraduate studies he contributed to the creation of the University’s Jewish Studies, Asian Studies, Global Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution Certificate programs.
Today he teaches “Humanities 425: Thought and Image” and “Humanities 366: India’s Gandhi,” courses that delve into the teachings of King and other nonviolent philosophers and activists. Lunine has also written a book, “The Conscience of Nonviolence,” which he hopes to see published soon. The book includes a chapter on King — another way Lunine has worked to spread King’s message of peace, hope and tenacity.
“Not just talking a good game but acting on it — that’s what King was all about,” said Lunine. “It’s easy to be discouraged ... All the more reason to keep going. He is iconized for a day, but the work goes on.”