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Our Rich History: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and our region; a remarkable legacy, visionary leader

This column originally appeared on April 3, 2018. It is reprinted here to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

In 1968, I was only eight years old. Yet my parents, my teachers, my uncle, and newspaper and television journalists made me acutely aware that I was living through one of the most momentous eras in US history. Four years before, when I was just a toddler, my uncle, Rev. Allen J. Meier of Covington, Kentucky, gave the invocation on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, on the occasion of the visit of Martin Luther King Jr. Of King, my uncle was effusive in his praise, stating that he was “very sincere” and charismatic, literally the “type of man you wanted to do what he wanted.” (see Our Rich History: http://www.nkytribune.com/2015/10/our-rich-history-rev-martin-luther-king-jr-the-civil-rights-movement-and-nkys-leadership/)

Martin Luther King Jr. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

1968 was literally a turning point in not only US history, but in world history as well. In the US, it witnessed the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek reelection, escalating protests on college campuses against the Vietnam War and in support of Black Studies, the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and of Robert Kennedy, riots in American cities, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and tornadoes in the Ohio River valley.

Today as a Professor of History, I remind my students often that US history has experienced moments when consequences catch up with procrastination and inaction. Historically, our nation has navigated its ship of state from periods of unified (and unifying) “can-do” action, to times of “kicking the can down the road” procrastination and inaction for the next generation to deal with, and finally, of “foreseen and unforeseen consequences,” that compel “must-do” action. In 1968, the “foreseen and unforeseen consequences” of procrastination and inaction were rearing their heads and leading to “must-do actions.”

One of the most visionary leaders of modern times was Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), a Civil Rights leader immortalized by his non-violent means of protest and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1964. To thoughtful little eight-year-olds like me in 1968, King’s assassination and other tragic events of that year were like spears that punctured our innocent views of the wider world around us, thrusting us into attempting to understand a society beset by inequality, violence and instability.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. SOURCE: Daniel Hurley and Paul A. Tenkotte. Cincinnati: The Queen City. 225th Anniversary Edition. Cincinnati, OH: Cincinnati Museum Center, 2014, p. 142.

If anyone understood the importance of “can-do” action it was Martin Luther King Jr. The son of a Baptist minister father, Martin Luther King Sr. or “Daddy King” as he was called, King Jr. earned his BA in Sociology from Morehouse College, a B.Div. from Crozier Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Theology from Boston University.

In Boston, King met his future wife, Coretta Scott (1927-2006). She had attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, on a scholarship for two years. Yellow Springs is east of Dayton, Ohio, and only about 70 miles northeast of Cincinnati. Then Scott matriculated to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

As Pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. played a key role in that city’s bus boycott in 1955-56. In 1957, he joined Rev. Frederick “Fred” Shuttlesworth (1922-2011), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990) and others in establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), dedicated to achieving equality through nonviolence.

By 1963, King was involved in the Birmingham campaign, for which he was jailed and wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It contained a well-known sentence that summarized his philosophical outlook very concisely: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the same year, King gave his now-famous “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an address at Riverside Church in Harlem in New York City, declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. In King’s mind, all of these issues—segregation, poverty, and war and violence—were interrelated. Lack of human compassion and equality spelled a society in decline, he noted, for “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The King family had many friends and supporters in Cincinnati. They included Rev. L. Venchael Booth, pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Avondale. Foremost among his Cincinnati friends, however, was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who moved to Cincinnati in 1961 to pastor Revelation Baptist Church on John Street in the city’s West End. Already, in December 1961, Daddy King visited Shuttlesworth at his church, as part of a Freedom Fund rally that attracted 200 people. The intrepid Shuttlesworth, despite a threatening phone call claiming a bomb threat, held the rally. Originally, King Jr. was scheduled to be the keynote speaker, but was arrested in Albany, Georgia, during a peaceful demonstration (Cincinnati Post, December 19, 1961, p. 6).

“Daddy King” revisited Cincinnati to conduct a revival at Zion Baptist Church in Avondale in November 1963 (Cincinnati Post, November 2, 1963, p. 6). In June 1965, he returned to Cincinnati to speak at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Lockland (Cincinnati Post, June 19, 1965, p. 7).

Coretta Scott King visited Cincinnati in April 1962, where she sang at a benefit concert for the Negro Sightless Society at the Zion Baptist Church in Avondale. She had just returned to the US after a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, where she took part in a nuclear disarmament movement called the “Women’s Strike for Peace.” Like her husband, Coretta Scott King was dedicated to world peace and racial justice as related challenges (Cincinnati Post, April 9, 1962, p. 24).

Rev. L. Venchael Booth. Cincinnati Post, January 15, 1976, p. 15.

Martin Luther King Jr. himself visited Cincinnati in May 1964 to address the annual convention of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was a crossroads for the Civil Rights movement nationwide as the US Senate was considering passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Signed into law in July of that year by President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), the bill prohibited racial discrimination in employment and segregation in public, and many private, places. As King stated in Cincinnati, the Civil Rights bill “will not solve all our problems,” but offered hope that it would “be a significant step in the right direction” (Cincinnati Post, May 9, 1964, p. 2).

In October 1964, King returned to Cincinnati to lead a motorcade urging voting in the upcoming national elections. The motorcade started at the Zion Baptist Church and proceeded to “Cumminsville, Lockland, Madisonville, and Walnut Hills.” Perhaps never before—and likely not since—has Cincinnati witnessed such an impressive assembly of Civil Rights leaders. The motorcade included “Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP; Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, vice president of the AFL-CIO; James Farmer, executive director of CORE: The Leadership Conference; and John Lewis, director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee” (Cincinnati Post, October 22, 1964, p. 42).

In June 1967, King Jr. returned to Cincinnati to address congregants at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Lockland (Cincinnati Post, March 19, 1967, p. 17). In September of the same year, he addressed the annual Progressive National Baptist Convention, held at the Netherland Hilton hotel in downtown. The theme of that year’s convention was “Spiritual Renewal in a Decaying Society” (Cincinnati Post, July 31, 1967, p. 23; Cincinnati Post, September 2, 1967, p. 6). There, King spoke to over 1,000 delegates, urging them to oppose the Vietnam War. “The promise of the Great Society has been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam,” King attested. He cited statistics that demonstrated that the US spent only $53 per person to help the poor in America, and $500,000 on average to kill each Vietnamese soldier (Cincinnati Post, September 9, 1967, p. 2).

September 1967 was King’s last visit to Cincinnati. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Soon after the brutal murder of this man of peace, many of the nation’s cities erupted in riots, including Cincinnati.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU.

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