MLK at Sac State: 50 years later

This article was originally published on on Oct. 11, 2017. Ashley Nanfria wrote the story. Featured photo courtesy of The State Hornet. I created the timeline.

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On Oct. 16, 1967, more than 7,000 people gathered on the grass field at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium and watched as civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his thoughts on what the future of the civil rights movement would look like.

Sac State will celebrate the 50th anniversary Monday with a full day of events, all meant to teach attendees about the legacy of King’s work and the day he came to speak at the university.

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King first rose to prominence as a leader from his writing and speaking on behalf of black communities in the south where segregationist laws were most heavily enforced.

He helped lead over 200,000 people in the March on Washington, where he gave his most famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, commonly referred to as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Within one year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written into law by President Lyndon Johnson, setting in motion the end of segregational law in the United States.

Dr. King gave his speech to the crowd, touching on his main ideas of equality, respect and civil liberties; ideas that King passionately advocated for throughout the civil rights movement.

“We still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial justice is solved in our nation,” said King in his speech.

“Large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, humanity and equality,” he said to roaring approval.

Dr. King would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee six months later on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. King had been in Memphis working with and leading sanitation employees who were on strike.

At the time of his speech, rights movements were still contentious; the “Long Hot Summer of 1967” featured 159 recorded race riots, during which nearly 100 people died and over 11,000 others were arrested.

King reflected on the riots, particularly the 12th Street Riot in Detroit in July, imploring the values of nonviolent resistance in protest.

“Nonviolence in a militant, powerful expression is the most potent weapon available to a black man in his struggle for freedom in human dignity,” King said.

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In a 1970 visit, King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr., echoed that sentiment.

“You don’t win anything in violence,” the elder King said.

King is not the only notable visitor that came to Sac State in the 1960s; Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther Party, also gave a speech at Hornet Stadium in 1968 in which he challenged then-California Governor Ronald Reagan to a duel and said, “Fuck you, Ronnie baby.”

The civil rights movement has been a significant topic in the country for decades. Dating back to 1954, the movement has made strides and encountered obstacles over the years.

Today the country celebrates leaders of the Civil Rights Movement such as King, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman with statues and national holidays celebrating their efforts in the movement.

King’s speech still resonates, as the United States has seen resurgences of racial tension stemming from high-profile deaths of African-Americans like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and many others that helped to create and popularize the Black Lives Matter movement.

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This came decades after the first race riots of the 1970s and in 1992 after Rodney King was violently beaten on camera by four white police officers in South Central Los Angeles who all were subsequently acquitted.

Between those two high-profile events, America elected its first black president, Barack Obama, who served two terms while receiving racist threats and questions of whether he was born in America, most notably by now-president Donald Trump.

King addressed the root of contention in civil rights as the imbalance of political and economic power among different races; mainly that white Americans had a disproportionate amount of power over all minorities in the country and attempted to legislate change without truly addressing the real problem of race relations.

“To have a truly integrated society, ultimately, men and women must do the right thing, not merely because the law says it, but because it’s natural and it’s right,” King said.

“White Americans must ultimately treat Negroes right not because the law says it but because the Negro is his brother.”

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