MLK’s Grosse Pointe speech heard nearly 50 years later

Candice Williams


Grosse Pointe Farms — Three weeks before he was shot and killed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came here to deliver a speech that some say still resonates today.

King delivered the speech “The Other America” in a packed gymnasium at Grosse Pointe South High School on the evening of March 14, 1968, by invitation of the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group of about 150 people gathered Monday afternoon in the same gym to listen to a recording of the speech nearly 50 years later. The event was sponsored by the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch. A larger event is planned for the anniversary date of King’s visit in March.

“We don’t have as many opportunities as we need to come together in fellowship to mark our common humanity,” said Greg Bowens, president of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch. “The thought that folks can come from all five of the Pointes, Harper Woods, the east side and really all over the place is really good.”

In his speech, a large portion of the 71-minute recording heard Monday, King discusses the nation’s race problem and says there needs to be an honest confrontation with it. He says he titled his speech as such because there are two Americas.

“Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas,” King said.

King describes one America as beautiful, saying that millions of people “have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.”

King then talks about the other America, which is not as pleasant.

“This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transform the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular, walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist,” King said.

“... In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high school reading at a seventh-, eighth- and sometimes ninth-grade level. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so overcrowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out.”

This speech, like many King gave between 1967 and his death on April 4, 1968, examines poverty, racism, and militarism, said Derrick White, visiting associate professor of the Department of History/ African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College. It was the second phase of the civil rights movement that focused on the “realization of equality,” White said.

“What makes this speech, and others given over the last two years of King’s life, so important is his clear analysis of the social, political and cultural landscape,” he said.

In this speech, King makes an effort to debunk three myths: one is that is time will heal, that legislation can’t solve the problem and the over-reliance of the bootstrap philosophy.

King’s speech is incredibly relevant today as is most of the things he did in the last two years of his life, said Peter Hammer, professor of law and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School.

“Think about the end of King’s life — his own rethinking of really the second generation of the civil rights movement that he helped start,” he said. “And it expands out to not only fight racism but fight militarism and fight poverty and all of those things are in ‘The Other America’ speech.”

Hammer added not enough has been done in terms of progress in the arena of civil rights.

“You could really connect the dot of 1968 and what King was talking about in 1968 and what needs to be in the social, political agenda of 2018,” he said. “We’ve tried a whole bunch of little things. We’ve never gotten to the root cause of the problem. As King says in ‘The Other America,’ the root cause is that we’ve never correctly addressed racism. That echoes in the headlines we have today with our current leadership. Until we root out racism ... the rest of the things are only superficial.”

Frank Zinn, 83, of Grosse Pointe Farms, said he and his wife, Ruth, were in the audience when King first delivered the speech in 1968. They sat in the left balcony. This time, the couple had seating on the gymnasium floor to listen to the recording.

“Anticipation is the best word,” Zinn said to describe the atmosphere in 1968. “People really didn’t know what he was going to say, but it was exciting. He was an excellent speaker.”

Ruth also recalled King’s visit.

“I remember just his presence,” she said. “It was just amazing to think that we were here with this remarkable person and that we filled this gymnasium.”

Zinn said that he’s afraid too much is still the same in terms of the points King made in his speech.

“There have been changes, but there are too many people in this country that have not changed,” he said. “Maybe the current political situation has exacerbated it.”

Taylor Smith, 17, of Harper Woods, said she’s hopeful about future. She came to listen to the speech with her mother, father and brother.

“I feel a lot has changed, but there’s still a lot more change that needs to happen,” she said. “I feel we’re going in a good direction.”

Taylor said she was intrigued to hear “The Other America” speech, which she didn’t previously know existed. She said King inspires her work as a youth volunteer.

“I appreciate what he stood for and how his legacy still stays today,” she said. “I feel the love that he had for people and wanting to see people to do better and changes in the world has inspired me to do that as well on the level that I’m doing.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN