By: Sam Zeff and Matt Hodapp
On April 4th, 1968, the radio and TV crackled with awful news. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.
For most, it would feel like the United States was coming apart at the seams in 1968: The Tet offensive in Vietnam, wild political conventions and assassinations: First King then Senator Robert Kennedy. Both great men would have ties to Kansas in 1968. Kennedy, as we talked about on a previous Archiver, gave his first speech in Kansas after he announced his presidential run.
King would start his year at Kansas State University on January 19th, at a convocation in a jammed packed Ahearn Field House. King came away impressed and heartened by the students he met that day in Manhattan. But we didn’t know how impressed until decades later when hand written notes found in the suite jacket he was wearing the night he was shot surfaced. Notes directly about K-State. And his words that cold morning in Manhattan are as meaningful today as they were 48 years ago.
“You see a fact is merely the absence of contradiction but truth is the presence of coherence. Truth is the relatedness of facts. Now it is a fact that we have come a long, long way but it isn’t the whole truth. And if I stopped at this point, I’m afraid I would leave you the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality, and we would all go away the victims of a dangerous optimism. And so, in order to tell the truth, it is necessary to move on and not only talk about the problem in terms of progress that we have made but also to make it clear that we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved.”
King didn’t arrive at K-State without controversy or concern for his safety. The president at the time, James McCain, was criticized for bringing radicals to the KSU campus. The man who arranged the lecture, political science department chair William Boyer, received a threatening letter that he turned over to the FBI.
King’s speech was part lecture, part sermon. The first half was laden with facts and figures on poverty, unemployment and education. But then King transitioned from lecture to sermon. He didn’t have a speech, really, just notes. A King aid said the K-State speech was homiletics, the art of preaching.
"...I must say that it would be an act of moral irresponsibility for me to condemn riots and not be as vigorous in condemning the continued existence of intolerable conditions in our society which cause people to feel so angry and bitter that they conclude they have no alternative to get attention and to engage in this kind of violence. What we must see is that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? She has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. She has failed to hear the promises of freedom and equality that have not been met. America has failed to hear that have not been met. America has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, humanity, equality. And so it is still true that our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. As long as justice is postponed, we will be on the verge of social destruction.”
"As long as justice is postponed, we will be on the verge of social destruction." That was certainly true in 1968, but is it true today in Kansas?
We asked Kevin Willmot, a professor at KU and a filmmaker who's films deal with race and social justice. He grew up in Junction City, KS in the 1960s.
"I was in fourth grade when King was assassinated. When the flash came across the tv, my mother started screaming," said Kevin, "I went to school the next day, and I was that current events kid that always talked about what was going on in the world. I raised my hand and said 'last night Martin Luther King was assasinated' and my teacher said 'we won't be talking about that'. I think that had a huge effect on me cause because I don't think I've stopped talking about it ever since."
"Dr. King being in Manhattan, I mean, that made you believe that the country was going to go towards King's dream. That that would maybe become the reality in American life. And everything that's been happening in the last few years, especially in Kansas, has told you that these people really don't believe in that dream. That the leadership doesn't maybe understand the dream; that they believe in a different dream. And that's the thing that's so frightening to people. That maybe there's another American that is growing right now, and certainly the President (Donald Trump) has become the symbol of that," said Kevin.
Why haven’t we learned what King tried to teach 48 years ago in Manhattan? Well, really big thinkers have failed to answer that question, and maybe we never will. But perhaps it has something to do with political leadership.
“Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus,” King told the crowd.
"On some positions, cowards ask the question: is it safe? Expediency asks the question: Is it politic? Vanity asks the question: is it popular? But conscience asks the question: is it right? There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic nor popular. He must take it because conscience tells him that he is right.”