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When Martin Luther King came to Minneapolis

The world King lived in was in many ways different than ours, but still not different enough.

The world King lived in was in many ways different than ours, but still not different enough. Associated Press

In the winter of 1963, Minneapolis Morning Tribune reporter Dick Cunningham wrote about an “unsmiling man in a dark suit” who spoke about racial segregation in the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium.

According to Cunningham's story, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for 42 minutes, and touched on the various failures of the nation to reach racial equality. There were about six million black people living in the South, King said, and only one and a half million of them were registered to vote.

More than 40 percent of black families made less than $2,000 a year—the equivalent of a little under $17,000 today—as opposed to 17 percent of white families. Segregation, a more subtle form of slavery, was dying, he said—but not fast enough.

King wanted white Southern moderates to speak up against their extremist neighbors, and asked the “quasi liberals” of the North to be as mad about rampant bias in housing and the workplace as they were about “atrocities” in the South.

He applauded church leaders for holding a recent race and religion conference in Chicago, but expressed frustration that “bars and taverns” seemed to be better integrated than Christianity. He espoused the virtues of nonviolent resistance. Then he ended with a brief prayer.

There was a moment of quiet. King walked back to his chair and sat down. Then the 3,000 people sitting in the auditorium rose to their feet and applauded.

In the edition of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune with coverage of King’s speech, you could find a story about a pair of white Arkansas girls being pelted with ice, dirt, and a firecracker after having lunch with a “Negro girl” who had integrated their school the previous week.

A “Dear Ann” column entitled “Fat, Lazy Wife Needs Psychiatric Attention” appears, as does a short story with the American Cancer Society advocating a “quick, short smoke” for a lowered risk of lung cancer. Another story detailed South Carolina as the last state with “unbroken public school segregation,” and how a court order would finally allow a “smiling, reserved Negro” named Harvey Grant to enroll at Clemson College.

But reading about King’s speech in 2020 makes 1963 seem closer to our time than we might like to admit. Minnesota still suffers from some of the worst disparities between black and white residents in the nation. Minneapolis’ neighborhoods, long after the days of legal redlining, are still largely segregated by race. As are our interactions with police officers. More often than not, calls for reform are stymied by claims that racism and equality are no longer the urgent rallying cries they used to be, that things are totally different now. 

King likely understood the frustrations of slow and uneven progress. When he returned to Minneapolis in 1967, it would be to a changed but still imperfect city. MinnPost would later describe that address as having a “hard edge,” as King called out his white supporters for being “more opposed” to unambiguously racist Southern officials than “committed to genuine equality for Negroes.”

Victories had “rectified some evils of the South, but did little to improve conditions for millions of Negroes in teeming ghettoes of the north,” he said. Race riots in Minneapolis and across the nation were “the language of the unheard.”

A year later, he would be shot by an assassin in Memphis.

King’s prayer during his first visit, back in 1963, was a simple one about being grateful for progress, but not satisfied.

Cunningham copied it down thusly:

“God, we ain’t what we should be; We ain’t what we could be; We ain’t what we’re gonna be; But thank God we ain’t where we was.”