60 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at Cheltenham High School

King visited as part of the Cheltenham Township Adult School’s 5-Star Forum series on April 15, 1964. Other speakers included Art Buchwald, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a cover of a 1964 Cheltenham Township Adult School catalog

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the end of a rainy civil rights march in Chicago, Aug. 22, 1966, and the outside of Cheltenham Township Adult School's 1964 Spring Term catalog, which previews a visit from King. (AP Photo/Larry Stoddard / Kenny Cooper/WHYY News)

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Longtime Cheltenham Township residents and school district alumni are familiar with the tale of the lost tapes.

Lore has it that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Cheltenham High School in the 1960s — and the event was captured on film.

Within the suburban legend is a half-truth. King did speak at the high school to a sold-out audience on April 15, 1964. He visited as part of the Cheltenham Township Adult School’s (CTAS) now-defunct 5-Star Forum series. Other speakers that year included Art Buchwald and Dr. Sidney Hook, as well as Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

WHYY News obtained a copy of an old program from Cheltenham resident Donald Scott. The program details CTAS events that spring, including King’s speech. Scott, a professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, has balanced a long career in journalism with a passion for history. A recording has not been found.

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The outside of Cheltenham Township Adult School's 1964 Spring Term catalog
The outside of Cheltenham Township Adult School’s 1964 Spring Term catalog previews a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY News)

“We believe that he probably covered a lot of the themes in that ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Scott said. “And that of course involved America needing to commit to what they had on paper in terms of all men and women — all individuals in America — being free and [deserving] the same rights.”

The CTAS program came into Scott’s inbox by way of former adult school historian Eileen Douglass in 2013. The email provided him information on the event and a copy of the old term program. Douglass has since retired and was unable to be interviewed for this story.

The inside of Cheltenham Township Adult School's 1964 catalog
The inside of Cheltenham Township Adult School’s 1964 catalog says Spring Term speakers included in the 5-Star Forum include Dr. Martin Luther King, Art Buchwald, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY News)

What is CTAS?

CTAS was first established in 1939 as an inexpensive option for adults to expand their educational, recreational and vocational opportunities. Its popular 5-Star Forum brought in five speakers over the course of the semester to lecture before an audience. The event, which was held inside of the high school’s Stretton Hall, was so popular among township residents that it had subscribers.

“You had to buy the season series,” said CTAS Board President Marsha Fisher. “You couldn’t purchase individual tickets and they were quite reasonable.”

Marsha Fisher
Marsha Fisher, board president of Cheltenham Township Adult School, calls its various events a “labor of love.” (Kenny Cooper/WHYY News)

Attendance hovered around 1,100 to 1,300 people, according to Fisher. Over the years, 5-Star Forum guests included Maya Angelou, John Updike, Danny Glover, Margaret Meed, David Brinkley, Hal Holbrook, Abe Fortas, George McGovern, Beverly Sills, Ralph Nader and WHYY’s Terry Gross.

However, attendance dipped in the early 2000s. Fisher said two things killed the speaker series: the rise of the internet — specifically TEDxTalks — and the skyrocketing costs of attracting lecturers.

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A list of 5-Star Forum speakers
A list of 5-Star Forum speakers dating back to 1963 (Kenny Cooper/WHYY News)

“The speakers started having agents and when the speakers got agents, the prices became astronomical,” she said.

The agent for Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson River, approached CTAS with a speaking offer, according to Fisher.

She said the price was roughly $98,000 for an evening engagement. She responded with a polite “no.”

Ultimately, pulling off the speaker series became financially unfeasible. In 2011, 5-Star Forum ended.

Looking back on how CTAS attracted some of the biggest faces of the 20th century evoked strong emotions within Fisher. She said she’s glad the organization had the “foresight” to invite King at such a critical moment in U.S. history.

But it is no coincidence the King accepted the CTAS invite and came to Cheltenham. He had a big footprint in the Greater Philadelphia region. After finishing undergraduate studies at Morehouse College, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland. Scott said King’s time in the area was a grand exchange of ideas between him and local religious figures, like Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan of North Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist Church, granting him an educational connection to the region.

Donald Scott
After Donald Scott’s long journalism career, he began teaching and writing history books. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY News)

“His father actually had a network of connections through preachers and, in fact, some of the preachers in Chester and Philadelphia kept an eye on Dr. King, and that’s really when people realized that Dr. King would become something very great, because occasionally he would speak at some of the local churches in Chester and in Philadelphia and they were just amazed at his oratory skills,” Scott said.

It also helped that King had friends in and around Philadelphia — such as the late Rev. Dr. Robert Johnson Smith Sr. of Salem Baptist Church, which was previously located in Jenkintown. Scott interviewed Smith in the early 1990s and Smith shared with him that he went to Morehouse with King. This connection prompted King to deliver a speech at Smith’s church on Oct. 27, 1963 — an event that was officially recorded.

Although details of King’s more mysterious visit to Cheltenham are sparse, Scott is “proud” that CTAS brought King to the township.

Donald Scott
Donald Scott’s research specialty is examining contemporary issues and how they connect to the past. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY News)

“The importance of remembering and paying homage to those people to these very historical events is very important, not only from a historical perspective, but also to let all people — but I believe very importantly young Black students and scholars — to realize that they come from greatness and that our people overcame some of the most incredible obstacles along the way, being the conscience of America and actually, in many ways, building America with our blood, sweat and tears,” Scott said.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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