Witnesses recall unwavering eloquence of civil rights leader’s 1964 message during Denver visit
By Cara DeGette
When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Park Hill 50 years ago this month, he mesmerized and energized thousands of Coloradans working toward integration and waging a battle for racial equality.
King’s three-day historic visit included several speaking engagements in Denver and Littleton. The Sunday before he flew home to Atlanta, he delivered a Sunday sermon at Macedonia Baptist Church and then spoke at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church. The crowd, in the thousands, spilled onto the street outside.
Everywhere, King spoke of the battle for racial equality, and for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed later that year. Also that year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.
According to an account in the Jan. 25, 1964 Rocky Mountain News, King hinted at a national boycott of industries that refuse to abandon employment policies that allow racial discrimination. He rejected suggestions that enacting new laws would not change attitudes that condone discrimination.
“Legislation can’t make a man love me, but it can stop a man from lynching me,” King told an audience of 600 on a Friday night at the University of Denver.
King’s visit was sponsored by the Denver Commission on Human Relations. The organization’s chairman, Dick Young, escorted the civil rights leader to his many speaking engagements and meetings with other local leaders in Denver and Littleton.
“I was just awestruck at how he spoke, using no notes,” said Young, who has lived in Park Hill with his wife Lorie for 53 years. “He was just such an effective speaker.”
Park Hill’s relevance
Park Hill was particularly relevant to King’s visit because the neighborhood was ground zero in the fight for fair housing and public school integration during the time.
Park Hill was the first neighborhood in Denver — and was a model for the nation — to resist the blockbusting that occurred when black families started moving into neighborhoods that had been previously been inhabited mostly by white families. Rather than go along with what is also called “white flight,” many Park Hill residents worked to integrate the neighborhood.
One of King’s visits was to Littleton, which was then a far south suburb of Denver where very few, if any, blacks lived at the time. In a 2006 PBS documentary about King’s trip to Denver, Garrett Ray, the former editor of the Littleton Independent, discussed the significance.
“At the time, Littleton was still a white community,” Ray said. “[We knew] Park Hill was making efforts to remain as an integrated community, and Littleton said, ‘we need to be looking at this and we need to be ready.’”
The soul of the nation
On Jan. 24, 1964, King addressed the congregation at Littleton’s Grace Presbyterian Church.
“We’re struggling in the final analysis to save the soul of our nation,” he said. “We’re struggling also to save the image of our nation. Therefore it is imperative for the nation to work passionately and unrelentingly now to get rid of this cancer of segregation and discrimination.”
Another stop included a breakfast meeting at the Hilton downtown, mainly attended by business leaders, including real estate executives. The main message, according to historians, was that integration is good – not bad – for business.
“Certainly the issues of faith that I have and many others as we work in this movement is the faith to believe that the problems can and will be solved,” King said. “And I think that if we continue to move on with all of the forces that are now at work that before the turn of the century we will have moved a long, long way toward a thoroughly integrated society.”
“And I would say within 10 years most of the legal barriers of segregation will be broken down. Where we’re just working in general to break down the system we still have segregated facilities in most of the southern states and our specific plans are to work until all of these segregated facilities are broken down, and we are working now in a very intensified sense in the area of voter registration seeking to double the number of Negro registered voters in the south, and I think this will be one of the major movements of the next few months.
‘It was a beautiful time’
The visit also included a reception for King at Dick and Lorie Young’s Park Hill home, with then-Mayor Tom Currigan and other dignitaries.
Lorie Young said that it was a fully catered affair, but all King asked for was a cup of tea with honey. And she had no lemon in the house, so had to run next door and borrow one from a neighbor. King’s trip came less than two months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and many were still in shock. Security was tight throughout the visit, the Youngs said.
Maxine Gatewood, now the office manager at Macedonia Baptist Church, was a young woman when she went to hear King speak at the church. “He came to preach the word and he did.”
“I remember it was so exciting as a young person,” Gatewood said. “We had read about him and seen him on TV and witnessed him in the light of all the stuff that was going on at that time to actually have him be at the church we felt like he was a celebrity.”
The church, at 3240 Adams St., was filled to the capacity of 800, and security was tight. She didn’t remember King’s exact message, just the calm he exuded. “There was a bomb threat during the service, but he handled in a way that he knew everything was going to be all right. He was a man of God. It was just a beautiful time.”
No one has clean hands
The last stop of King’s visit was at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church at 1980 Dahlia St. Young remembers that Sunday afternoon as snowy, and cold. Still, King drew the biggest turnout the church ever had – an estimated 3,000 strong, including a spillover crowd jamming the sidewalks outside. It was a multiracial gathering, with religious leaders and politicians in the crowd.
Shortly before he was to speak, King became locked in the pastor study area due to a tricky door jam. Ultimately, church leaders propped a ladder outside and the civil rights leader climbed out, carrying his robe.
He spoke to the throngs outside the church, before going inside to talk to the congregation.
“More and more we must come to see, we must come to see, that the problem of racial injustice is a national problem and not a sectional one,” King said during his time in Denver. “Actually no section of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.
“And I think as the movement progresses in the south it must progress in the north and vice versa because if you have the problem anywhere you have some aspects of it everywhere. And injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”