By Susie Allen and Michael Drapa
“ When he ascended the podium, a hush settled over the audience…[W]e were awed by the presence of a man who inspired simple black folk to walk over 370 days for the right for a seat on the bus.”
On April 13, 1956, a 27-year-old preacher with a powerful voice and a resounding message stood in the pulpit of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
“We cannot slow up, because we have a date with destiny and we must move with all deliberate speed,” Martin Luther King Jr. told the men and women crowded into Rockefeller’s pews. “This is a conflict between the forces of light and dark, and in the end there will be victory for justice and democracy because love will triumph … If you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl, but keep moving forward!”
That Rockefeller speech, often overlooked, was King’s first major address in Chicago. He would make three visits to the University of Chicago campus between 1956 and 1966 — a decade that proved transformative for the nation and for King. In 1964 alone, Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act and King received the Nobel Peace Prize. With each visit, King deepened his ties to the city of Chicago and inspired new audiences with his message of hope, justice, and courage.
“There’s just an extraordinary feeling when I remember the people who have preached from this pulpit,” says Elizabeth Davenport, dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. “The sense of hearing Dr. King’s footsteps echoing through the chapel, the sense of hearing his voice in this very space where I spend my day, is a very moving thing.”
‘A glorious day’
Local activist and civil rights leader Timuel Black, AM’54, was instrumental in bringing King to Rockefeller Chapel in 1956.
Black left the Army after World War II ready to fight injustice on the home front. “We came home, determined to make the world a better place,” he remembers.
He first saw King on TV during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and was struck by the young minister’s passion and charisma. Black and fellow members of the First Unitarian Church encouraged their minister to invite King to speak at an upcoming conference of Unitarians and Universalists. They moved the conference to Rockefeller after realizing the First Unitarian Church at 56th and Woodlawn was too small to accommodate the crowd King was expected to draw.
King’s speech offered “a very strong message of a way to protest,” Black says. “It was a very important part of the beginning of civil rights.” The speech is believed to be King's first major address in Chicago. (Records indicate that in February 1956, he visited Shiloh Baptist Church on the South Side.)
In his Rockefeller speech, King emphasized the importance of peaceful resistance to the injustices of segregation. “We must use as our weapons, the love which transcends everything and can make you compassionate with those who hate you,” he told the congregation, according to the Chicago Defender.
King helped the early civil rights protestors see a viable way to achieve their goals, Black says. “We had the idea, but we didn’t have the method.”
King’s 1956 visit “stands out clearly in my mind,” Mark Morrison-Reed, AM’77, wrote in his memoir, In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby. “When he ascended the podium, a hush settled over the audience…[W]e were awed by the presence of a man who inspired simple black folk to walk over 370 days for the right for a seat on the bus.”
Longtime Unitarian church member Norma Poinsett, then 30 years old, recalls how King’s moving words affected her.
“The most impressive thing was to see such a young person like me, speaking with such clarity on what I felt needed to be done in this country,” says Poinsett, who was in the Chapel with her husband Alex, who had covered King as a senior editor for Ebony magazine.
Black says the speech left the crowd “jubilant, from a religious, as well as a non-religious perspective. He inspired and informed. It was a glorious day.”
The visit to Rockefeller also helped to raise King’s profile nationally. He soon began getting more requests to speak at other major churches across the country. “It gave a certain validity,” Black explains. “If a big-time church like Rockefeller would have this man, then I have to have him, too.”
On Oct. 25, 1959, King returned to Rockefeller Chapel to preach at the Sunday service. According to the Chicago Maroon, King was hopeful about the progress of the civil rights movement. “We are, in the South, moving from a negative peace, where Negroes accept a subordinate place in society, to a positive peace, where all people live in equality,” he said.
The documents recording King’s visits are treasured items in the Rockefeller Chapel archives, says Davenport. For the 1959 event, Chapel secretary Marilyn Lickfield made one small notation on the Sunday program: “Chapel filled for this service.”
‘Still at it’
By the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement had made substantial gains: Little Rock High School and the University of Mississippi were integrated. The 24th amendment was passed, abolishing poll taxes, and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
For King, however, the struggle was far from over. On Jan. 26, 1966, he moved his family into a tenement on Chicago’s West Side to draw attention to the plight of the nation’s poor. Just one day later, he spoke at Student Government’s Speakers Series in Mandel Hall, where he called for economic reforms aimed at combatting the spread of urban slums.
Yet his hope was unflagging. “I do not think that the tiny nation that stood in majesty at Concord and Lexington, that electrified a world with the words of the Declaration of Independence, will defame its heritage to avoid a responsibility,” King said, according to the Maroon. “That is why I believe not only in the future of the Negro family, but also the future of the family of man.”
David Stameshkin, U-High’63, AB’67, helped organize King’s visit to campus that day. “I arranged to use a guest room on the main floor of Pierce Tower for Rev. King to rest and spend some time that afternoon preparing his remarks for the evening talk,” he recalls. Later that evening, Stameshkin accompanied King for a short ride from Pierce to Mandel Hall. “I recall Rev. King, shivering a little in a thin raincoat. He said that he had left Atlanta without a warm coat because his wife (who had packed for him) had not realized how cold it would be in Chicago at that time of year.”
“It was, for me at least, a very memorable day,” Stameshkin says.
King would not return to campus again, but the memory of his visits lingers. Black proudly carries on the work of the man who called him “Brother Black.”
“Still at it,” Black says.
Originally published on January 9, 2012.