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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Speech From K-State Still Resonates Nearly 50 Years Later

Kansas Memory
Martin Luther King, Jr. at K-State in 1968.

On April 4, 1968, the radio and TV crackled with awful news: Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

King would start his year at Kansas State University on Jan. 19, at a convocation in a jam-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 he was until decades later when hand-written notes about K-State were found in the suit jacket he was wearing the night he was shot. 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’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. A King aid said the K-State speech was homiletics — the art of preaching.

"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 Willmott, a professor at KU and a filmmaker whose films deal with race and social justice. He grew up in Junction City, Kansas, in the 1960s.

"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 Willmott.

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 .”

Archiver is an independent podcast produced by Sam Zeff and Matthew Hodappfor Fountain City Frequency with support from the Kansas Humanities Council.

Diane Krauthamer is the digital intern for KCUR 89.3.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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