Martin Luther King in Deseret

On this 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and in the pre-Conference blogging lull, perhaps there is room in your day to remember Dr. King’s visit to Salt Lake City. (This was written for use in February 2007.)

Some 1,700 students and community members waited in the Union Ballroom of the University of Utah on Jan. 31, 1961. Eight o’clock came and went with no word from their featured speaker. He had not been on the scheduled plane from Denver; had he stayed home in Atlanta to care for his wife and the son who had been born only hours earlier? Still, the audience waited.

When he finally arrived, with a police escort to speed his way across the valley, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. apologized to the standing-room-only audience and explained that he had missed his Denver plane connection.

He had come to speak on the future of integration—“civil rights”was not yet a current term in Utah—and to encourage Utahns to participate in the movement. “We are standing on the threshold of the greatest period of racial development,” he said. “The most important force behind the struggle … is the non-violent resistence movement. It’s our most potent weapon.”

Graduate student Jennifer Harward, examining the civil rights movement in Utah for her master’s program at the University of Utah, notes that “the NAACP has been at the center of civil rights activism in Utah” since its organization in 1919. She reports that Albert B. Fritz, president of the Salt Lake branch from 1957 to 1965, had spearheaded protests involving musicians Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino in the 1950s, and would urge the passage of Utah legislation mirroring the national Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Fritz was the guiding spirit behind a low-key, mostly symbolic, but significant episode in civil rights activities in Utah. On Saturday, Mar. 12, 1960, a dozen protesters, six black and six white, had picketed Kress’s and Woolworth’s department stores on Main Street north of Third South. Fritz monitored the demonstration to ensure that the pickets were “peaceful, cordial and do not block the entrances.”

While the protesters carried large placards denouncing the two national chains for maintaining segregated lunch counters in the South, Fritz emphasized that the NAACP had no complaint about the Salt Lake businesses. Both stores served blacks at their lunch counters. In fact, Carl L. Jones, manager of the Woolworth branch, “invited the pickets to come in for coffee when they got tired or cold.” The protesters passed out leaflets asking Utahns to write to the department stores’ national offices “to conduct their businesses in the South as they do in Salt Lake City.”

When King spoke to the 1961 assembly, he thanked those who had participated in the peaceful picketing a year earlier. Such local sympathy activities, he said, were “valuable aids in bringing pressure to bear on the chains involved,” occurring as they had “while sit-in activities were at a peak in the South.”

“The forces of integration will win in the South,” he said, while prejudice in the North was “more subtle and more difficult to get at. At least in the North we have broken down the legal barriers.” He called on religious groups to “gather more courage to resist segregation.”

His speech ended amidst a thunderous and standing ovation.

King posed for a few pictures—he appears as a younger, more relaxed man than we see in later images—and returned to the airport that evening. He had a speaking engagement in New York City the next day, followed by an unknown roster of other appointments before he could return to his family and get acquainted with his infant son.

Fritz continued his work with the NAACP and today is remembered by the annual presentation of the Albert B. Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award, presented most recently to Susan McFarland, a teacher at Willow Canyon Elementary School in the Jordan School District and an NAACP volunteer during legislative sessions and on other projects.

And Utah continued its slow and unfinished progress toward civil rights and full equality for all its citizens.

17 comments for “Martin Luther King in Deseret

  1. Nice note, Ardis, as I have been quietly marking this day today. I was old enough to remember the news coverage of Dr. King’s death that day, and being saddened. I have a hard time grasping the violence of teh 60’s when I discuss them with my kids

    later, in the 1980’s, I remember listening to Andrew Young, then the Mayor of Atlanta, speak in the same ballroom at the U of U, and later to Coretta Scott King speak at a church east of Foothill Boulevard while the Utah Legislature was arguing over whether or not to recognize the national MLK holiday as a state holiday. Republican opposition had been vocal against recognition, but after Mrs. King’s visit, opposition quietly melted away, and Utah, one of the last holdouts amongst states, recognized the holiday as a state holiday. Both were charismatic and polished speakers, but neither matched the fire of Dr. King’s recorded speeches and sermons that I have since listened to.

  2. Nice post, but incomplete. \’Unfinished\’? What needs to happen – or what condition must exist – for it to be considered finished?

  3. Thanks for bringing up this little bit of history, I never even knew he ventured out to Utah. Which brings me to something that\’s been bothering me for a while, but in particular today. . .

    Having grown up in Utah and since moving to Atlanta, I am disappointed in my total lack of education about and honor for Dr. King while living there. Even now, when people visit and I am showing off my city, it saddens me when they are not interested in going to Ebeneezer Baptist Church or even driving by the childhood home of Dr. King. All my life from these friends and family I have heard about MLK\’s flaws and \”immorality\” (a comment I have never heard from anyone I know in \”secular\” life). But today, I am wondering more and more about the intolerance I grew up with in regards to King and his mission, especially given the parallels I see to the \”Mormon Movement\” or restoration.

    I get that the time was violent and divisive, that Dr. King could not control all of his followers, who sometimes did really stupid and extreme things, and that others were threatened by it. It sounds a bit like what I have read about in early church history – violence and mobs and a man whose \”morality\” could be questioned by outsiders who feel their way of life being threatened by him and his message (and even some who believe whole-heartedly in his message). A man who is targeted by his own government, then ruthlessly assassinated in his thirties before his work could really be finished. A movement bigger than its martyr, which grows from its truth and goodness, despite the flaws of those doing the \”moving\”.

    As I listened to NPR replay a portion of the speech he gave 40 years ago in Memphis, and heard some of the sanitation workers speak of the horrors of their jobs before the strike, I am once again in reverence and awe of this work and recognizing the work still left to do. Along these lines, I can see the problems clearly, but the answers are elusive and definitely debatable.

    I am not trying to \”out politically correct\” the next person, and I don\’t know if it\’s the time in which I was raised or that I have moved to a community where race is an issue and can\’t and won\’t be ignored. Today, I just want the man to receive his due honor. As a church, we seem to revere the American Revolutionary forefathers as having divine direction, I am hoping as much for the fathers and mothers of this movement as well. Maybe it\’s already here.

  4. Ardis,

    Thanks for this historical factoid. I too was unaware MLK had ventured into Deseret. I was surprised (probably naive) at the degree that many of the brethren in leadership positions in the 1960’s, including President McKay and others were so anti-civil rights at the time. I was disappointed to read many of the private comments by these brethren and the public ones in Prince and Wright’s David O. McKay biography. Were it not for President Hugh B. Brown’s mention of MLK’s work in one of the April 1968 conference session he was conducting, there would have been no mention of his assassination at all. We’ve (the Church) come a long way, indeed. It was good to hear MLK was warmly received by some, even in Salt Lake City, in 1961.

  5. When I discovered Dr. King had come to Utah and I wanted to do a column about it for Black History Month last year, I needed to find out what Dr. King meant when he referred to an earlier “sympathy” action. I looked through the Trib’s index for each of the preceding five years under every term I could think of — blacks, negroes, colored, integration, civil rights, protests, sit-ins, MLK, NAACP, Fritz, disorderly conduct, riots — I know how offensive some of those terms are, but I tried every way I could think it could possibly have been indexed no matter how resentful the indexer might have been. Nothing. The Trib editor even had a staff member search the Trib’s morgue, a service I don’t ordinarily have access to. Nothing. I ended up going page by page through the newspapers backwards in time, month after month, until I found a very small report of the Woolworth/Kress picketing; with that date, I could find a similar story in the DesNews with additional details.

    Experiences like that have made me very sensitive toward picking up every scrap of local black history I come across, in hopes of someday assembling it into a more complete story. How can that history ever be written when the bits are so invisible, even now? Apparently the newspaper indexers never dreamed in 1961 or thereabouts that anybody would ever want to look up the clipping about that event. Thanks for sharing my feeling that the indexers were wrong.

  6. \’where there is no vision, the people perish.\’ i think of proverbs 29:18 when i think of Dr. King and his great vision for peace and brotherhood. thanks for sharing this unknown piece of utah history.

  7. Kevinf, thanks for sharing your memory, and mel, your perspective from Atlanta. Guy, your comment about the absence of remark about the assassination is what prompted my #5.

    ron, that remark is mostly intended to be seen from the perspective of 1961 when clearly much was unfinished. Since this is chiefly intended to be a tribute to Dr. King on a somber anniversary, I’d prefer not to steer the conversation in the direction of, say, immigration or the claims of social or religious or economic groups as being treated as lesser, but if you think along those lines you can probably identify work that remains unfinished. Maybe it never *will* be finished, as times and expectations change.

    I can always count on you, Ray, for supportive comments. Thanks. And di, welcome to T&S — yours is a welcome perspective.

    Justin, I suspect that Fritz may have helped work out the details, but it was the U’s student association that sponsored the speech. I’m getting old enough to be cranky about the idealistic and trendy political activities of college students; this is one time, though, when I have to admit that they got it right, with far more foresight than I had at that age.

    Thanks, all; I appreciate this more peaceful and reflective conversation after the more combative ones I’ve been indulging in lately.

  8. Many years ago I participated in the “March on Washington” with a group of a few hundred young people and adults who called themselves the “Massachusetts Freedom Riders” We wore white armbands with that stenciled on them when we marched. My group was sponsored by the Congregationalist Church of which I was a member at that time. Although there were very, very few African-Americans living in my northern Massachusetts home town I somehow felt compelled to participate in this march. At the time I believed that it was the simple raw injustice of what American blacks had to suffer and endure in the South and from all bigoted Americans that prompted me to go. At the Mall in Washington D.C., the closest I got to the Lincoln Memorial was about one third down the length of the reflecting pool and the only way to ‘see’ was by standing on its edge. The water was brackish and algae filled but some waded in it to get closer to the podium at the front of the memorial. At that distance, the address system echoed Dr. King’s words off the buildings surrounding the Mall making the speech seem a little ethereal as if coming down the corridors of time. I liked the speech (I was 15 years old at the time) but harbored some skepticism that even I would see Dr. King’s dream become a reality in my lifetime. It was many decades later, four to be exact, that I discovered that I had black ancestors myself. So in retrospect, I had a deeply personal vested interest in the Civil Rights Movement. My grandfather left Texas as a young man where on the U.S. Census Rolls he was a Black man and moved north to Chicago and when registering for the draft in World War I listed his race as “Caucasion”. He had succeeded with one train ride in ‘passing’ into the white world. That was the way he personally freed himself and his posterity from the shackles of predjudice and discrimination. I now sometimes wonder if it was my black ancestors who prompted me to participate in this historic event.

  9. Sorry, but to me it seems a provocative and un-Christian thing to do, for Mr. Fritz and the Salt Lake NAACP to picket two local stores that were not guilty of any offense. I can imagine not many good feelings were generated by the event, but the NAACP got some publicity. The Utah NAACP must have a lot of extra time on their hands.

    These were and are typical tactics of the NAACP. Rather than extend a hand of friendship, understanding, and fellowship to the local citizens, in an effort to work out differences, the NAACP takes actions that tend to provoke and incite people to anger. This also was basic doctrine for MLK. Provoke the local white citizenry.

    It is easy to judge and point fingers of blame at the South, but remember, the US military and much of the federal government was segregated up until the early 1950’s. The South was far from alone in racial segregation. I am confident the good people of the South, both black and white, could have worked it out and done away with legal segregation, without a civil rights bill. Often, patience and kindness bring the best results.

    MLK was smart, with charisma and a great gift of communication. I believe he could have achieved amazing results in bringing the black and white communities together in the South, if he had used a Christlike approach, such as an out stretched open hand, rather than a fist of provocation as he went through the South. Unfortunately, MLK divided the races more than ever. A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

  10. Nonsense. The idea that state-sanctioned discrimination didn’t require a legislative solution is just bizarre.

  11. Velikiye, what a remarkable and unexpected story! That deserves to be told somewhere other than a comment. It has all the drama of an O. Henry plot to support a dignified, unsentimentalized conclusion. Have you ever written it up for more formal publication? If not, we need to talk.

    Scott, yours is also a remarkable comment, but not so unexpected based on past statements. Go back to your bunker; your input is not wanted. And of course I say that in the most patient, kindest, and Christlike way imaginable.

  12. Ardis, thanks for posting this. I was looking for a way to remember today, too. I thought I remembered someone (Alexander Morrison?) quoting MLK in an Ensign article a few years ago, but I can’t find it. Perhaps one part of the unfinished work you speak of is learning to officially appreciate King’s words, as well as his work.

  13. Having been born in 1949, my awareness of the world was very much dominated by the struggle to end segregation and racial discrimination. Racial prejudice was so obviously wrong that I was amazed that people in the South could hate their neighbors that much.

    At the same time, I did not experience discrimination against my Japanese mother or myself or my brothers and sister as I grew up in Utah. I have in my lifetime gotten much more negative reaction to being Mormon than to my being Japanese-American.

    Sadly, the emphasis on integration of the races, so that race no longer became a dominant factor in legal and social contexts, seems to have been lost. Instead, racial classifications have been institutionalized, ostensibly for the purpose of measurement, but also for the purpose of allocating opportunities. It is my personal belief that the short term gain for individuals in racial minorities of Affirmaitve Action programs will not make up for the creation of an explicitly adversarial relationship between races.

    Ensuring that each person is given a fair and equal opportunity for compete for opportunities is a rational and logical goal. By contrast, the attempt to create racial equality by chopping humanity up into arbitrary classes that are given differential benefits is an invitation for the designated loser class to be resentful and angry. Such programs incentivize giving primary loyalty to the class which will confer the greatest benefits, rather than to the community at large. By definition and goal, they are racially divisive. We should not be surprised that they actually perpetuate prejudices and racial loyalties.

    The armed forces achieved racial integration through strict merit based equality. The unity that is reinforced by uniformity and training in group cohesion is contrary to racial division. Differential promotions based on race would destroy unit cohesion and fighting strength. It is sad that such a successful model has been rejected by the rest of government in the vain attempt to avoid wrestling with the fundamental issue of inadequate public education and the social breakdowns that deter educational attainment. Affirmative Action is a bandaid to demonstrate sincerity while the vast majority of minority children injured by their lack of education never get any benefit from Affirmative Action for law school admissions.

  14. Ardis,

    Thank you for this. I was moved by your comments and many of the ones that followed. I\’d hope it would be a wake up call to us here in UT to be a bigger part of making sure none of the great ones or those who struggle are forgotten.

    It was interesting that this event took place 17 years before the LDS church would let blacks into the priesthood, and yet no mention of that in King\’s speech? Just curious. I\’d also be curious to know if you\’ve seen the Blacks In The Scriptures DVDs by Darius Gray and Marvin Perkins. Another fabulous story that needs to be told.

    Thanks again.

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