Nearly 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in the University of Denver Arena while wooden crosses and old cars burned outside.
The civil rights leader spoke about acceptance and equality at DU on May 18, 1967. One Denver newspaper reports King saying, “We still have a long way to go.”
And indeed we did (and do).
In 1967, a DU student group invited MLK to Denver for what would be his second and last speaking stint in the Mile High City. Less than a year later, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
“In his speech, King told an audience of 2,000 that America never has been solidly committed to civil rights for Negroes and that the ‘white backlash’ is just a new name for an old phrase,” Denver Post staff writer Judith Brimberg wrote at the time.
Brimberg went on to write that King didn’t want to see riots and violence take over the civil rights movement.
“‘The Negro cannot win a violent revolution in America,’ he said, ‘and mass police repression won’t deal with the problems either.'”
In Denver, King focused his attention on two major issues facing the country at the time: getting the legislation that would ultimately become The Civil Rights Act of 1968 passed and protesting the Vietnam War.
The war was about to enter its 12th year and would go on until 1975.
“‘I would have taken up arms to fight for my country against Hitler’ in World War II. But I’m sorry I don’t have the opportunity to be a conscientious objector in this war,'” Rocky Mountain News reporter Richard Tucker quotes King saying.
As a Baptist reverend, King was exempt from the draft.
Not all were pleased with MLK’s telling people to dodge the draft. The comments got some boos inside the half-full arena, according to University of Denver historian Steve Fisher.
“Outside students with different views expressed their feelings. One group, which included Mark Treece, Albuquerque, N.M., held up a sheet inscribed ‘Rights for Whites,'” The Denver Post reported. “A block away, students burned two wooden crosses and two old cars, one bearing a sign that said ‘Kill Martin Luther King.'”
King was reportedly unaware of both episodes.