Martin Luther King Jr.’s final college speech was in a somewhat unlikely place: Kansas
Martin Luther King, Jr. would start 1968 — one of the most tumultuous years in American history — with an event at Kansas State University. Just months before his assassination, the speech was his last on a college campus.
Tensions ran high the morning of January 19, 1968, in Manhattan, Kansas.
It was convocation at Kansas State University — a usually staid event that marked the beginning of the semester. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most prominent civil rights leader in America, was on campus to address students and faculty.
King didn’t arrive at K-State without controversy or concern for his safety. University leaders had already been criticized for inviting King to speak.
While not as far left politically as the University of Kansas, K-State was still pretty liberal for central Kansas, especially considering how close it is to Fort Riley, the sprawling Army post just a few miles away.
The university president at the time, James McCain, wrote that he was criticized for bringing “radicals” to the K-State campus. The man who arranged the lecture, political science department chair William Boyer, was threatened, as was McCain.
“After it became publicly known that Dr. King was to speak at KSU, I received an unsigned hate letter about our invitation,” Boyer wrote in a 2011 essay. “It disturbed me so much that I notified the FBI. An FBI agent came to my office. I gave him the letter. But I heard nothing more about it,” he wrote.
Despite the threats, King’s appearance was without incident. In fact, the Manhattan Mercury reported that King was interrupted with applause a dozen times.
The first half of King’s speech was laden with facts and figures on poverty, unemployment and education. But then King transitioned from lecturer to preacher.
He didn’t have his speech written down, just notes — an amazing example of homiletics, the art of preaching without a script — a hallmark of King’s public speaking style. And King preached about Black people in America demanding their civil rights.
The summer of 1967, which came to be known as the "long, hot summer," saw more than 150 violent clashes between Black citizens and white police officers in urban communities across America. Dozens of people died and tens of thousands were arrested.
"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,” King told a packed Ahearn Field House.
“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.”
King also spoke about the Vietnam War and how he was discouraged by what he called the “the ambivalences of American white society.”
But his mood perked when he talked about being on the K-State campus. “It is the student generation that is saying to America there must be a revolution of values and is forcing America to review its values,” he said.
King’s speech particularly touched one K-State student that day. Dan Lykins was a Topeka lawyer and served on the Kansas Board of Regents. Lykins was a reporter for the student radio station when King came to K-State.
“You really were spellbound,” Lykins said when interviewed about the speech before he died in 2021. Lykins said not enough has changed in America since King spoke in Manhattan.
“There haven't been a lot of changes (in) the way we treat people," Lykins said. "I think that if Dr. King was around today that would make him kind of sad to think, all these years we're coming back to where we were in the old days. You know, we're just not treating people the way we should in America.”
University of Kansas professor andfilmmaker Kevin Willmott agrees. Willmott has devoted his art to social justice. He was a little boy in nearby Junction City when King was at K-State.
Willmott describes Kansas in 1968 as “not a bad place for Black people” but rather a place where the racism was “low key.”
He remembers walking down the street with his mother in Junction City when they passed a diner with an appealing smell.
“I said, ‘Man, we should go in there,’ And she said, ‘No, no, we don't. We don't go in there,’ And so there was, like, that kind of discrimination. People that had lived there long enough knew where you could go and where you couldn't go.”
King finished his speech 56 years ago by calling for stronger and more courageous political leadership.
“Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus,” King told the crowd as he wrapped up his speech.
"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.”
This story was originally told in a 2016 episode of the history podcast Archiver, produced and hosted by KCUR's Sam Zeff.