Fifty years ago, Sacramento State ‘cut against the grain’ by inviting MLK to speak

Denounced by President Lyndon Johnson and the mainstream press for his powerful speech condemning the Vietnam War, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on Oct. 16, 1967, took his message of peace and justice for all to California State University, Sacramento, one of the few places that would give him a platform.

“A little college in Sacramento, California had the good sense, the nerve and the courage to cut against the grain and invite him anyway,” PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley said Monday to crowd of about 1500 people on campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of King’s CSUS speech. “Thank you for not leaving Martin out in the cold. Thank you for allowing him to speak his truth.”

King’s Vietnam speech, given in April 1967 at the Riverside Church in Harlem, also had caused him to fall out of favor with many civil rights leaders who supported the war and saw Johnson as an political ally. When King arrived at Sac State, 75 percent of American people, including 60 percent of African Americans “thought he was too toxic to be around,” Smiley said.

Taking the stage in front of 7,000 people at Hornet Stadium, “was a real boon to him, a shot in the arm,” said Smiley, author of the book “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year,” which was published last year.

On that October day, King spoke for 35 minutes, giving a speech titled “The Civil Rights Movement of the Future.” In it, he addressed unemployment, inequality in education and the “dilapidated housing conditions” endured by millions of African Americans. He painfully referred to the 58 black churches burned in Mississippi over the previous 18 months, saying that such violent acts “are daily reminders that we have a long, long way to go.”

King also told the crowd that “creative maladjustment” would fuel the civil rights movement. What he was saying is that there are normalized aspects our society that we should never become accustomed to, Smiley explained Monday, adding that it’s a concept that still has currency today.

“Fifty years later, we are becoming too adjusted to injustice, poverty, militarism, homophobia, ageism,” Smiley said. “Too adjusted to folks in the White House lying ... to the misogyny toward women, grabbing them by their private parts.”

People have become “too adjusted to denying the science of climate change” and “to the high cost of education,” he continued. “We’re too adjusted to demonizing and blaming immigrants.”

Smiley said King, in his Sacramento speech, “was calling for empathy, not sympathy. ... We are good about feeling sorry for our fellow citizens, but not good about putting ourselves in the shoes of others. Equality and equity are not the same thing – equity means meeting the need and making up the difference. In this country there is a highway into poverty but a sidewalk on the way out.”

Smiley’s appearance, part of a daylong celebration that included a film screening, a unity march, a concert and workshops, drew a standing ovation.

Aya Khalifeh, a 22-year-old international relations major, called Smiley’s comments about King “absolutely amazing and inspiring. It gave us the will to be the change you wish to see in the world, leading through actions, not words.”

John Hester, 86, said Smiley’s lecture brought back memories. Hester said he had taken the day off from his job at Aerojet 50 years ago to hear King speak at Sac State.

“It was a very profound speech,” he recalled. “Those times were similar to what we have now. There was so much confusion, so much separation. With electronic media, people are more aware of going on, but people focus on our differences rather than the things that we have in common that are far more important.”

CSUS President Robert Nelsen also spoke Monday, noting King’s appearance at Sacramento State was the only time he spoke at a California State University campus. Paying homage to the civil rights leader, Nelsen asked attendees to remember King’s legacy.

“We can have a hate-free campus and hate-free world,” he said.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini