When MLK Came to Houston
“Dr. Martin Luther King’s Last Visit to Houston…1967.” Forward Times 13 April 1968. Located in MSS 0064 John Fonteno Collection, The African American Library at the Gregory School, Houston Public Library
By the time, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Houston for the last time in October 1967, he found a city that in many ways defied explanation. After all, across the country cities had been gripped by riots, while George Wallace was already beginning to gather a following of white supporters for his 1968 presidential bid, based on a firm stance against desegregation.
However, here in Houston, things were by no means idyllic, but tensions hadn't erupted into violence like in other places.
King had been making stops in Houston for years by 1967. He made one of his first appearances in Houston when he delivered the commencement address for the Erma Hughes Business College graduates at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in 1958, according to archives from The Informer.
As the Civil Rights Movement unfolded, King came back to Houston every few years to give another speech. When he was here in December 1962, he was hopeful, delivering a speech to a crowd of 3,000 people at the Old City Auditorium. "The American Negro is about to gain his freedom," King told his audience then.
In May 1964, King once again made a stop in Houston. This time, he was the man who wrote "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" and who delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And this time he wasn't just talking about dreams. He addressed 1,000 Texas Southern University students and told them they needed to move at "double-quick time" to get ready for the flood of social change that was coming.
He had reason to be confident: The Voting Rights Act was close to being passed. Plus, he'd been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. King's approach of nonviolence and peaceful resistance seemed to be working.
But by the time King came back to Houston in 1967, tensions in the city, and across the country, were palpable. Even though Houston hadn't had riots like the ones in Detroit and Newark, in May students at Texas Southern University began to hold demonstrations over the dismissal of people tied to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at the school, according to a dispatch written to the Harvard Crimson. The demonstrations eventually turned into a full-blown stand-off that resulted in the death of one officer and the injury of one student and two cops.
Despite having one of the largest black populations in the south, Houston by that point had still managed to avoid the riots and violence that had gripped other places in recent years, partly because authorities made enormous efforts to quell such conflicts, according to reports at the time. However, the TSU protests showed how precarious things really were in Houston.
Houston Mayor Louie Welch appointed special assistants to maintain a liaison between city officials and black leaders, according to the Crimson. Welch signed off on upgrading the poorest black neighborhoods in the city at about the time of the protests, apparently as another way of trying to ensure good relations between Houston police and the black community.
When King came to town in October 1967 to give a speech at the Sam Houston Coliseum the event drew more than 4,000 people; Harry Belafonte and Aretha Franklin were also set to perform at King's speech.
But the event was marred by protests. There were Klansmen on the sidewalks before the event started and somebody put smoke bombs in the air conditioning vents to make people think the building was on fire, according to Rev. William Lawson's oral history from University of Houston archives. People stumbled toward the exits. "We have problems here tonight," King told the throng, according to Lawson. "The forces of evil are always around."
The event organizers scrambled to figure out how to handle the smoke bombs and the panic, Lawson says in his account. It was even worse because there was a strong feeling that even in Houston they couldn't trust city officials, according to Lawson. "We had to have police protection, and we weren't sure whether or not the police were actually going to protect us, when somebody shoots us."
What they certainly didn't know was that it was the last time King would stand before them. From Lawson: "Dr. King, all these celebrities came to the Sam Houston Coliseum ... That was in October 1967. By April 1968 Dr. King was dead."