Madison in the Sixties – Dr. King comes to town
March 30, 1962. In a speech entitled “the future of integration,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tells an enthusiastic capacity crowd at the Union Theater that, “Segregation is on its death-bed, and the only problem is how expensive the nation will make its funeral.”[i]
He says segregation is being challenged by those he called “maladjusted men of good will.” “Be maladjusted,” he exhorts those who oppose racial inequality and discrimination, adding “I never intend to adjust to segregation, discrimination, religious bigotry and economic deprivation.”
He cites several reasons for optimism that the movement will reach its goal, including the reduction in segregated schools since the 1954 supreme court decision holding segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the elimination of the poll tax in all but five southern states, the beginning of economic justice for blacks, and the almost total elimination of lynching,
“But we still have a long, long way to go,” he adds, citing just as many reasons for pessimism, including terrorism against civil rights leaders, supporters and their houses of worship, low voter registration by Blacks, discrimination in employment which has left the percentage of Blacks living in poverty three times higher than the percentage of whites, and the low number of Black students attending integrated public schools in the south.
The 23-year-old Baptist preacher lashes organized religion for the part it plays in supporting the status quo. “The churches still remain the major segregated institutions in America,” he says, with Sunday Schools are “the most segregated schools in the nation.”
He says President Kennedy has done “some significant things” for civil rights but has not yet “given the leadership the enormity of the problem demands.” King calls on Kennedy to issue an executive order banning bias in any housing receiving federal funds, which he said would serve as a second emancipation proclamation.
Describing himself as “realistic,” King says that integration is neither impossible nor inevitable.
He says the movement of non-violent resistance will succeed because Blacks “will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” He calls non-violent action “a potent weapon which disarms the opponent and exposes his moral defense.” It’s also the only practical tactic, he notes, as “whites control the instruments of violence.”
And by holding that the moral end must align with the means used, he says non-violence can be applied throughout one’s life; “hate the system,” he counsels, “but not the perpetrators of that system.”
King dismisses what he calls the “myth of educational determinism,” that whites will support integration once they understand it better. He says the movement’s goal is “not to change internal attitudes at first, but to change the external effects of bad internal attitudes.” He doesn’t mind if people don’t like him, he says, “as long as they don’t lynch me.”
When King returns on November 23, 1965, he’s the reigning Noble Laureate – a peace prize winner in the cow palace, getting a standing ovation from the Stock Pavilion crowd of about twenty-six hundred. Although King’s talk bears the same title as his 1962 address, it differs in substance, including calls for a massive program of public works, expanded public education, an increase in minimum wage to $2 an hour, and the employment of blacks in Southern law enforcement.[ii]
Blacks today have more dignity but are still far from equal, he says, and are instead consigned to “an economic legion of the damned, an impoverished alien in an affluent society, with widespread economic deprivation of the Negro both in North and South.”
“A piece of freedom is not enough for us as human beings,” he says. “A piece of liberty no longer suffices. Freedom is like life. Freedom is one thing. It is indivisible. You have it all or you are not free.”
He says there’s a new barrier to full freedom for Blacks in the south, “an overdose of tokenism,” which he says manifests itself by the admission of just a few Black students into an all-white school, or a handful of Black workers in a lily-white factory.
And the crisis is deepening, he notes, as two-thirds of all Blacks in America live in poverty and deprivation.
King celebrates the Voting Rights Act passed earlier this year, which he calls the figurative completion of the march from Selma to Montgomery. But he laments that its purposes are being thwarted by “intimidation, harassment, firings and evictions,” and criticizes the federal government for not doing more to protect southern Blacks who want to vote. The Act’s purpose, he warns, “can be defeated by this cautious restraint of enforcement,” which he says is reflects that the Department of Justice has “been working under the wrong theory,” namely expecting voluntary compliance with the law.
Noting that the presence of federal registrars has led to a tripling of Black registration, he says that “by bold enforcement, the recalcitrance of the segregationists can be made as impractical as it is immoral.”
King calls for three reforms he says are “irresistibly imperative for the reforming of the racist system of justice in the South” – a law to make the murder or intimidation of persons seeking to exercise their constitutional right a federal felony, federal standards for the selection of jurors in state courts, and the employment of Blacks in southern courts, police forces, jails and prisons.
As he did in 1962, King calls for a kind of “maladjusted discontent” among persons opposing injustice, and says “our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.”
King closes his hour-long address reaffirming his faith that “we will be able to hew out of the mountains of despair the stone of hope,” so that someday soon Blacks can say “we are free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
As King is speaking, the campus is voting for a new student government. Among those elected to the WSA Student Senate – history graduate student Paul Soglin.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing freedom-loving listener-supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
[i] “King Will Speak at Union on Future of Integration,” DC, March 21, 1962; Robert E. Bouzek, “ Race Barriers Yielding, Dr. King Says,” WSJ, March 31, 1962; Gruber, “King Says Non-Violence Key to Civil Rights Gain,” DC, March 31, 1962; Rev. King Lashes Churches,” CT, March 31, 1962.
[ii] Nicholls, “Dr. King Proposes Public Works Plan,” WSJ, November 23, 1965; Johnson, “More Federal Action Is Needed in Civil Rights Field, Says King,” DC, November 24, 1965; Hunter, “King Says Negroes Now Emphasize Poverty War,” CT, November 24, 1965.