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Martin Luther King’s ’63 and ’67 Minnesota visits are a study in contrasts

The 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. rally in St. Paul
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The1967 Martin Luther King Jr. rally in St. Paul

He was an “unsmiling man in a dark suit who spoke quietly about racial segregation,” according to Minneapolis Tribune reporter Dick Cunningham, who covered Martin Luther King’s visit to Minneapolis on a wintry January day in 1963.

The noted civil rights leader had come here for a University of Minnesota speaking engagement at a pivotal point in his career. Seven years earlier, he had been thrust into the national spotlight when he led the successful Montgomery bus boycott.

By the time of his January visit, he had become the acknowledged leader of this country’s burgeoning civil rights movement. That leadership role would bring new challenges in the spring of 1963 when he would confront the notorious Eugene “Bull” Connor in Birmingham, Ala. Then, later that year, in what would be a highpoint of his career, King would lead his famous March on Washington.

King arrived here on the morning of January 28 and went straight to an airport news conference.  There he delivered an upbeat message about the accomplishments of the civil rights movement since his earlier visit to Minnesota in 1961.

 “The changes have been almost miraculous as a result of the early sit-ins, and not a single person faced the threat of physical death in those demonstrations,” he told a crowd of local journalists.  King noted that integrated bus service had been achieved in 150 cities without a court test, and that segregation was disappearing in public transportation in the South because of the freedom rides.

King wows University audience
Later that day, King spoke to an audience of 3,000 at the University’s Northrop Auditorium.  There, he talked about the unfinished work facing the civil rights movement, noting that only about a 1.5 million of some 6 million eligible Negro voters were registered to vote in the South.   While segregation was dying, he maintained, “its death needed to be hastened by a second emancipation declaration” from the Kennedy administration, which would condemn segregation “as a more subtle form of slavery.”

The African-American-oriented Minneapolis Spokesman gave prominent front page coverage to the civil rights leader’s afternoon speech on the University campus.

 “King’s quiet platform presence almost hypnotized his listeners as it did two years ago when he addressed the annual meeting of the Minneapolis Urban League,” the Spokesman told its readers. “The quiet eloquence with which he traced the unfairness of the U.S. to its Negro population left his friendly University audience in such a trance that it was deathly silent at the conclusion of his address and then stood on its feet and gave the slightly built leader an ovation.”

When King returned to Minnesota four years later, in April 1967, the country’s political and social landscape had been altered substantially. The 1964 Voting Rights Act had extended the vote to millions of disenfranchised blacks in the South, but a new, uglier mood had taken hold in the cities’ black ghettos. Two years earlier, Los Angeles’ Watts district had exploded in violence.  In the summer of 1967, deadly riots would sweep through places like Newark and Detroit.  Even Minneapolis would be caught up in the turmoil when young blacks torched mainly Jewish-owned shops on the city’s Near North Side.                                                                                                                               

By 1967, more militant voices in the civil rights movement were challenging King’s leadership role, questioning the efficacy of his emphasis on non-violence. At the same time, an escalating war in Vietnam was preoccupying Washington political leaders, leaving them little political capital to expend on domestic concerns. In Minnesota that year, King would confront the war issue, causing consternation for some black leaders who wanted him to remain focused on civil rights.

A hard edge this time
On April 27, King spoke again at the University, this time to an outdoor rally on the St. Paul campus. His words now had a harder edge. Chastising his largely white audience, at least indirectly, King maintained that whites, who supported Negroes in what he called the first phase of the struggle “were more opposed to Bull Connor and Jim Clark (the Selma, Ala., sheriff) than committed to genuine equality for Negroes.” King acknowledged that the legislative victories “had rectified some evils of the South, but did little to improve conditions for millions of Negroes in teeming ghettoes of the North.”  

He went on to tell his audience that he would continue to condemn the urban riots but added: “I have an obligation to vigorously condemn the conditions in our society that cause people to feel they have no other alternative than to engage in self-defeating violence. Riots are the language of the unheard. Our summers of riots are caused by our winters of delay.”

Then, in an effort to link his concerns about the War in Vietnam with  the need for more progress on the domestic front,  King condemned what he called an “ill-conceived” war; declaring that “too many who are busy escalating the Vietnam war are declaring themselves conscientious objectors in the war on poverty.”

King received an enthusiastic response from his largely student audience when he declared that “America … which took the initiative to escalate the war should take the initiative to bring it to an end.”  He had just begun to expound on his opposition to the war, when an aide interrupted him, saying that he needed to leave for the Twin Cities airport to catch a flight back to Chicago.

The next day, the Minneapolis Tribune editorialized about King’s visit to Minnesota. It applauded his efforts to promote civil rights but said it was a mistake for him to start campaigning against the war.

The Minneapolis Spokesman concurred. In an editorial titled “Tie Up With Vietnam Dissent Will Harm Rights Movement,” the Spokesman said King’s effort to link the war with the civil rights movement “was idealistic but not good tactics or strategy for an individual who has been in the forefront of the battle for Negro rights in the country.  The civil rights forces need all of their strength, support and dedication here at home to successfully conclude the struggle. The only possible result of Dr. King’s excursion into the active ranks of the doves, as we see it, is the diminution of his valuable leadership in the civil rights movement, the movement which won him a Nobel Peace Prize.”

A year after his 1967 visit, King’s career was cut short when he was the target of an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis Tenn.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/16/2012 - 11:06 am.

    I call on my leftist friends today to recommit themselves to making MLK’s dream a reality.

    Judge people by the character of their hearts, their actions, their behaviors; not the color of their skins, their genders or any other immutable attribute over which none of us has any control.

    It’s really not that hard.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/16/2012 - 02:43 pm.

    During the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King used his moral authority as a Baptist minister to convince conservative and religious Americans that civil rights for all Americans was the right and moral thing to do. Television images of George Wallace, Bull Connor, the KKK, firehoses being used on innocent people, etc., helped convince even the non-religious that it was the right thing to do. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed with 80% of republican votes (versus 60% of democrat votes).

    I was a student at the university in 1967. By then, the progressives and communists from the west coast, calling themselves the “Black Panthers” had hijacked the movement by convincing the black population that King was wrong. That non-violence was a failed strategy. That the white man was the enemy. That LBJ’s war against the communist armies in southeast asia was wrong. That massive government programs aimed at the black community were the only solution to eliminate poverty and assure equal rights. That a militant “black power movement” was needed to achieve their objective.

    Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and the field was cleared for the one faction to claim ownership of the movement.

    It was then that republicans and Christian conservatives began turning away from the Civil Rights movement. They supported the war against communism, which is the antithesis of freedom. They believed in self-reliance, not massive government social programs. They didn’t believe in race-based affirmative action, they believed in King’s dream of being judged, “not by the color of your skin but by the content of your character.”

    Today, conservatives still honor Dr. Martin Luther King for his dream and his appeal to a moral citizenry to achieve that dream. But their experience with the likes of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis et al has unfortunately recast the movement as a power play by the Left to eliminate capitalism and replace it with the welfare state.

  3. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 01/16/2012 - 04:48 pm.

    Oh yes, we would never call on our rightist friends to recommit themselves to making MLK’s dream a reality. We know there’s no need for them to do any better!

    It’s truly fascinating how one can twist history to fit one’s perspective isn’t it? For instance, just ignore the “southern switch” in which that huge faction of southern Democrats switched to the Republican party (where they remain today) because they were so upset with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

  4. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 01/16/2012 - 04:55 pm.

    #2 wrote: “80% of republican votes (versus 60% of democrat votes)”

    That would be “democratic”, as per Don Effenberger’s direction which can be found here:

  5. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 01/16/2012 - 05:59 pm.

    #3 – very good analysis. It is much as when Glenn Beck and other reactionaries quoted Thomas Paine and attempted to portray him as conservative, when in reality many of Paine’s ideas would be considered extreme socialism. In Paine’s “The Rights of Man” he outlined budgets for social security, child welfare programs, public housing, public works programs, and others in order to attain “social justice.” Even more radical was Paine’s “Agrarian Justice” in which he advocated annual pension payments for all over fifty years of age.

  6. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 01/16/2012 - 06:23 pm.

    “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining… We demand this fraud be stopped.”

    —Illinois AFL-CIO Convention, October 1965

    I call on my rightist friends today to commit themselves to make THIS part of MLK’s dream a reality.

    It’s really not that hard.

  7. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 01/16/2012 - 06:53 pm.

    #2-The Civil Rights Act was passed along North/South lines, not Dem/Rep lines, Mr. Tester.
    You’re just regurgitating a little piece of wingnut propaganda that gets tossed around by Republicans to try and whitewash their despicable legacy.
    Here are the final vote totals:

    The original House version:
    * Southern Democrats: 7–87 (7%–93%)
    * Southern Republicans: 0–10 (0%–100%)

    * Northern Democrats: 145-9 (94%–6%)
    * Northern Republicans: 138-24 (85%–15%)

    The Senate version:
    * Southern Democrats: 1–20 (5%–95%)
    * Southern Republicans: 0–1 (0%–100%)

    * Northern Democrats: 45-1 (98%–2%)
    * Northern Republicans: 27-5 (84%–16%)

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/16/2012 - 07:31 pm.

    Ms. Jackson – Democrats in the south in the 60s considered themselves patriots. They began switching parties when the anti-war Left began spitting on their relatives as they returned from Vietnam.

    Those people are now and have always been pro-life, pro-2nd amendment, pro-military Christian conservatives. Saying they switched parties because of race was a convenient rationalization when in fact the southern conservatives left their old party when it was taken over by the anti-American, atheist Left.

  9. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 01/16/2012 - 09:44 pm.

    The idea of someone who is “pro-military” also claiming to be “pro-life” has always struck me as an oxymoron.

    Seems a lot more “pro-life” to be “anti-war”, considering where all the killing is going on.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/16/2012 - 10:34 pm.

    Here’s the “wingnut propaganda” from the congressional record, Mr. Lynch.

    The Senate
    Democratic Party: 46-21 (69%–31%)
    Republican Party: 27-6 (82%–18%)

    The House:
    Democratic Party: 153-91 (63%–37%)
    Republican Party: 136-35 (80%–20%)

  11. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 01/17/2012 - 06:59 am.

    Interesting details but the civil rights information is selective. Not even the Klu Klux Klan assassinated high public officials but the Symbionese Liberation Army assassinated Marcus Albert Foster, the first black superintendent of major school district.

  12. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/17/2012 - 12:56 pm.

    @#1, #2, #10
    Seriously. No…really…seriously? I can only be incredulous at the depths of your partisan prejudice and the convolutions of your resultant “logic.” Incredible.

    As for my original comment that was so horribly derailed by reading the comments:

    In my mind, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is (aside from the most supernatural details), the Jesus of our time. His message is very similar, though the specific focus was different. That message was dangerous to the status quo, yet resulted in great change because of one man.

    Given the parallels, I guess that it is no wonder that his message of the masses is now being twisted much as Jesus’ message is.

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