The Day John Deere Shared the Stage with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. looked out at the crowd of about 800 people gathered to see him. It was Wednesday, April 28, 1965, and he was about to receive the Pacem In Terris Peace and Freedom Award, presented by the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council in Davenport, Iowa. The award was first presented in 1964, given posthumously to President John F. Kennedy and John Howard Griffin, a Texas journalist who wrote extensively on race relations in the United States. The award, which is still presented today, is meant “to honor a person for their achievements in peace and justice, not only in their country, but in the world.”
King’s visit to Davenport happened days after 25,000 people joined the Stars for Freedom Rally, a concert and rally organized by singer and activist Harry Belafonte and others, in Montgomery, Alabama.
The next day, a crowd marched from the site of the rally to the Alabama state capitol.
There, King spoke to the marchers about voting rights and racial segregation in low-wage labor.
Besides the honor of King’s visit, the event in Davenport, Iowa, held additional significance for John Deere for many reasons. For one, Deere’s president and chairman, William Hewitt, was one of three additional leaders recognized for “leadership in fostering racial justice in Quad City business and industry, especially in the area of equal employment opportunity,” according to a newspaper article about the event.
A Commitment to Racial Justice
The commitment to racial justice has deep roots at Deere and began long before William Hewitt. As a company, Deere has always taken its core values from its founder and namesake, John Deere. Deere himself was labeled a “raging abolitionist” by a local newspaper for his political efforts during the American Civil War, aligning himself with the Whig, and then the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln.
In the early twentieth century, Deere employed many black employees, though they typically held low-level jobs. In East Moline, Illinois, site of the John Deere Harvester Works, Spreader Works, and foundry, Deere was actively involved in the black community. In 1922, the Deere Board of Directors assumed the outstanding $1,100 mortgage of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of East Moline as well as $337.08 in other unpaid bills. The debt was assumed “partly due to the unemployment situation in East Moline … and in order to give them every assistance possible …” Deere & Company would “collect the amounts from the colored church when they are in a position to make further payments.”
Taking Action in the Workplace
Frank Dickey, then vice president of the company’s Industrial Relations, recalled that in the late 1950s Deere & Company decided that the company had to take positive action against segregation in the workplace.
“We decided that the only way we could prove to ourselves, and to the many people in supervisory positions in our company, that we really believed in non-discrimination, was to set about assigning qualified negroes to a wide variety of jobs, including, of course, the so-called ‘white collar’ group,” Dickey said.
Still, he said, there was resistance, “not because of our own attitudes but, rather, because of what we thought would be the bad reaction of other employees and possibly of some of our customers.”
Dickey said that he did not know how many other managers followed this rationale, but that “later experience failed to support any such fears.”
Speaking at the Illinois Governor’s Conference on Non-Discrimination in Employment in 1964, Dickey recalled the impact of Deere hiring its first black supervisor (Chuck Davis) in 1957. They worried whether white members of the crew would accept his direction, what the reaction of other foremen would be, and that they would be overrun with demands from unqualified African Americans for similar positions. “In fact,” said Dickey, “we worried about almost everything.” When the appointment was made, however, there was almost no discontent, minus one white foreman who threatened to resign. When he learned that the company would accept his resignation, though, he withdrew it.
Deere soon focused efforts on reducing high school drop-out rates, based on a correlation between education and employment, and increased efforts to attract black college graduates.
In 1955, the John Deere Foundation made its first contribution to the National Negro College Fund, and was involved in several programs in the Quad-City area to identify at-risk students. In 1963, Deere & Company established a corporate program for working with potential high school dropouts, and began direct recruitment at six African American colleges.
Put Up Your Souls
But back to that historic evening in 1965 — a moment when King stood on stage with other supporters of racial justice. “Dr. Martin Luther King has exemplified the principles of peace, freedom, and human dignity found in the cyclical Pacem in Terris,” read a description in the 1965 event program:
Through his teaching and practice of the principles of non-violence, King has perhaps done more than any other living American to make the world aware of Pope John’s admonition that “he who possesses certain rights has likewise the duty to claim those rights as marks of his dignity, while all others have the obligation to acknowledge those rights and respect them.”
King accepted the award “in the name of non-violence and the philosophy of love,” telling the crowd, “do not stoop to violence.” Instead, “put up your souls.”
That night, after the event, William Hewitt left for New York, with a stop in Chicago. As it happened, King needed a ride to the Windy City; Hewitt offered a seat on the company plane. Details on the flight are undocumented, but surely the two spoke of the unfinished work ahead.