Thursday, January 6, 2011

Martin Luther King's Visit to Fort Wayne

On the third Monday in January we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and honor his many contributions to building a better world. As an orator and champion of civil rights and non-violence, Dr. King is most often remembered for his "I Have a Dream" speech delivered during the March on Washington at the end of August 1963. Few of us know that a couple of months earlier on June 5, Martin Luther King spoke here in Fort Wayne at the Scottish Rite. His words touched the hearts of thousands gathered to hear him. Front page publicity in The Journal Gazette made it obvious that this black preacher from the South was someone to be taken seriously.

King was only 34 years old when he visited Fort Wayne, but he had already built a national reputation. For six years he had been leading a coalition of African American ministers known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the purpose of ending widespread racial segregation. Months before his appearance at the Scottish Rite, King had led non-violent boycotts, sit ins, and marches in Birmingham, Alabama. National television cameras had captured the police brutality used against demonstrators, igniting widespread moral outrage. Only recently, Dr. King had written his now famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" explaining to fellow ministers why the movement for black civil rights could no longer wait.

Dr. King's appearance in Fort Wayne was arranged by a group of church and civic leaders led by the African American Frontiers Club. Dr. John Meister, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, introduced him as "a glorious disturber of people and the peace."

Fortunately for us today, much of Dr. King's speech was recorded by Wesley Bashore, a journalist writing for The Journal Gazette. We can imagine being present in the packed auditorium on that warm evening moved by the passion and immediacy of Dr. King's words.

"There come a time when a people get tired of injustice, oppression, exploitation. We want to be free."

"Segregation is the new form of slavery covered with the niceties of civilizations."

"The Negro today will suffer, sacrifice, even die to be free."

"Some say slow up. You're moving too fast., We can't - we love America too much. We're through with gradualism, tokenism, see-how-far-you've come-ism."

"We have learned to stand up against the evil system - and still not hate in the process. We have discovered that love works miracles."

In an interview with Wesey Bashore, King made it clear that segregation was not only a problem in the South. De facto segregation "in such cities as this [Fort Wayne] can be just as damaging as the prevalent legal segregation of the South," he said.

A year after his visit to Fort Wayne, Dr. King was vaulted to international fame by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Congress under President Lyndon B. Johnson would pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Years of struggles to fulfill the promises of a more equal society would long continue. Few would remember Dr. King's speech here at the Scottish Rite, one of thousands he made during his travels across the country before his tragic assasination in 1968. Still, at this time when we celebrate his life, it is appropriate to recall our local connection. As he did in so many communiities, here in Fort Wayne Dr. King kindled hope and ignited a movement for social justice that wouldn't be stopped.

The Journal-Gazette June 5, 1963 article covering Dr. King's visit is available on microfilm at the Allen County Public Library.
by Peggy Seigel

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