When MLK Visited Grove Street

When MLK Visited Grove StreetUC Berkeley, Bancroft Library
Published on January 21, 2013

For your Martin Luther King Jr. Day, take a look back at a time when the young civil rights leader visited our neck of the woods.

You've no doubt heard of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. She was arrested on December 1st, 1955, and four days later was convicted of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance.

On the day of her trial, December 5th, a one-day boycott of the local bus system was arranged in protest. The boycott was so successful that organizers decided to form a group, the Montgomery Improvement Association, to continue the boycott until changes were made to the bus system. They elected as their president a local reverend named Martin Luther King Jr.

Six months later, while the boycott was still underway, the NAACP held its annual national convention in San Francisco, at the Civic Auditorium (now called the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium), at Grove and Larkin. More than a thousand delegates from 35 states attended. Rosa Parks was a featured guest, and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was then Chief Counsel for the NAACP, gave the keynote address. Martin Luther King Jr. was also invited to speak.

NAACP Convention at Civic Auditorium, 1956 / UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

On June 27th, 1956, King addressed the convention. In his speech, he discussed the Montgomery bus boycott, but within the context of the larger history of African Americans in America. Here are some excerpts from King's speech that day.

"It was suggested to me that I talk this evening about the Montgomery story... It is the story, a dramatic story, of a handsome little city that for years has been known as the cradle of the Confederacy. It is the story of a little town grappling with a new and creative approach to the crisis in race relations. It is impossible, however, to tell the Montgomery story without understanding the larger story of the radical change in the Negro's evaluation of himself. A brief survey of the history of the Negro in America reveals this change in terms that are crystal clear.

"It was in the year of 1619 that the Negro slaves first landed on the shores of this nation. They were brought here from the soils of Africa, and unlike the Pilgrim fathers who landed at Plymouth a year later, they were brought here against their wills...

Throughout slavery the Negro slave was treated in a very inhuman fashion. They were things to be used, not persons to be respected. They were merely de- personalized cogs in a vast plantation machine..."

With the rise of slavery, it became necessary to justify it. It seems to be a fact of life that human nature cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization with which an obvious evil is covered up in the garments of righteousness... This is what happened to the slave owners. They fell victim to the danger that forever confronts religion and a too literalistic interpretation of the Bible. There is always the danger that religion and the Bible not properly interpreted can be used as instruments to crystallize the status quo. This is exactly what happened. So from pulpits all over the nation it was argued that the Negro was inferior by nature... Then there was one person who had probably read something of the logic of Aristotle and he could put his argument in a framework that was somewhat similar to an Aristotelian syllogism. He could say all men are made in the image of God... God, as we know, is not a Negro; then the conclusion: therefore, the Negro is not a man. That was the type of reasoning that prevailed.

"In time the Negro lost faith in himself and then he came to fear that perhaps they were less than human. The tragedy of physical slavery was that it finally led to the paralysis of mental slavery. So long as the Negro accepted this place, this place assigned to him, a sort of peace, a racial peace was maintained. But it was an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced patiently to accept injustice, in- sult and exploitation.

"But then something happened to the Negro. Negro masses all over began to reevaluate themselves. The Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him that God loves all of his children, and that every man, from a bass black to a treble white, is significant on God's keyboard.

"With this new self-respect, this new sense of dignity on the part of the Negro, the South's negative peace was gradually undermined. The tension which we witness in the southland today can be explained by the revolutionary change in the Negro's evaluation of his nature and destiny, by his determination to stand up and struggle until the walls of injustice have crumbled...

"That is at bottom the meaning of what is happening in Montgomery. You can never understand the Montgomery story without understanding that there is a brand new Negro in the South, with a new sense of dignity and destiny...

"Now I might say that in the beginning we were not out to compromise or to sanction segregation. Some people have wondered why we didn’t ask for integra- tion in the beginning. We realized that the first-come,first-serveseating arrange- ment was only a temporary alleviation of the problem. We felt that the ultimate solution to the problem would be integration on the buses, but we knew that we had a case that would come up in court on that so that we were willing to accept this as a temporary alleviation of the problem, knowing full well that the ultimate solution was total integration...

"The history of injustices on the buses has been a long one. Almost everybody in the community, almost every Negro citizen of the community, can point to an unfortunate incident that he had experienced or that he had seen. But you know there comes a time in this life that people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of exploitation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. The story of Montgomery is the story of fifty thousand Negroes who are tired of oppression and injustice and who are willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk and walk and walk until the sagging walls of injustice have been crushed by the battering rams of historical necessity...

"From the beginning there has been a basic philosophy undergirding our movement. It is a philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It is a philosophy which simply says we will refuse on a nonviolent basis, to cooperate with the evil of segregation. In our struggle in America we cannot fret with the idea of retaliatory violence. To use the method of violence would be both impractical and immoral. We have neither the instruments nor the techniques of violence, and even if we had it, it would be morally wrong...

"Along with this emphasis on nonviolence goes the emphasis on love as the regulating ideal. We have refused in our struggle to succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter and indulging in a hate campaign. We are not out to defeat or to humiliate the white man. We are out to help him as well as ourselves. The festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro, and so we are not out to win a victory over the white man. And I assure you that the basic struggle in Montgomery after all is not between Negroes and white people. The struggle is at bottom a tension between justice and injustice...

"This in brief is just an introduction to a story that would take many, many speeches to tell, and even many books. It is the expression of a method. It might well be added to the several methods that we must use to achieve integration in America...

"I have no doubt that by 1963 we will have won the legal battle. On May the seventeenth, 1954, the Supreme Court of this nation gave the legal death blow to segregation. Then after the legal battle is won, we must confront the problem of lifting the noble precepts of our Constitution from the dusty files of unimplemented court decisions. This problem of implementation will be carried out mainly by the Negro’s refusal to cooperate with segregation.

"Wherever segregation exists we must be willing to stand up in mass and courageously and non-violently protest against it. And I might say that I must admit that this means sacrifice and suffering. Yes, it might even mean going to jail. But if it means going to jail, we must be willing to fill up the jail houses of the South. Yes, it might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free our children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more honorable."

The crowd in San Francisco cheered King's speech, but his message of passive resistance was controversial. Some NAACP leaders like Marshall were wary of endorsing the tactic of willfully breaking the law. But many delegates, including a young Medgar Evers, were so persuaded by King's speech that they pressured the NAACP to consider officially endorsing the strategy.

The organization agreed to have its NAACP Legal Defense Fund assume legal responsibility for the boycott. This support helped the boycott continue for six more months, until it ultimately proved successful.

In December of that year, a court ruling paved the way for the declaration of segregation as unconstitutional. So today, when you hear people talking about King, you can tell them about that crucial moment during the Civil Rights movement when he spoke at Civic Center, just a few blocks away from where we are today.