Fact Friday 326: Martin Luther King Jr. visits the Queen City - Powered by the Charlotte Museum of History

Fact Friday 326: Martin Luther King Jr. visits the Queen City - Powered by the Charlotte Museum of History

Happy Friday!

Today’s Fact Friday comes from an exhibit created by the Museum to honor Charlotte’s civil rights history in 2016. Written by Fannie Flono, journalist, author, and member of the CMH Board of Trustees, this portion highlights the many visits Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made to Charlotte over a 15-year period.

Well before he rose to national fame, King visited Johnson C. Smith University in the mid-1950s. A surviving photograph shows him flying out of the brand-new Douglas airport with several Baptist pastors and Kelly Alexander Sr. In April 1958, Alexander, then president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP invited him again to Charlotte to speak. In a letter to King, Alexander wrote, “There is still too much apathy and still much work to be done. We know your visit here will be of great advantage.” The two men began planning a visit for that fall, but King was attacked and stabbed in New York just before he was to travel to Charlotte. His right-hand man, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Jr. came in his place.

After a visit to Johnson C. Smith University in 1954, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flies out of the new Douglas airport to head to the National Baptist convention. Photo: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library.

King’s most well-known visit to Charlotte happened in 1960, when he spoke before a crowd of 2,700 at Charlotte’s Park Center, now known as the Grady Cole Center at CPCC. There he was introduced by activist, satirist, and founder of The Carolina Israelite, Harry Golden. Here’s a portion of his speech that night:

“This afternoon I would like to speak from the subject, ‘The Negro and the American Dream.’ In a real sense America is essentially a dream - a dream yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, colors and creeds will live together as brothers. The substance of that dream is expressed in these sublime words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream, America has manifested a schizophrenic personality. She has been torn between two selves - a self in which she proudly professed democracy and a self in which she has sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. Slavery and segregation have been strange paradoxes in a nation founded on the principles that all men are created equal.”

Sound familiar? Those words are an early version of a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would make famous three years later in the historic March on Washington in 1963. You can even listen to the Charlotte speech here.

This flier announces King’s 1960 visit to Charlotte, hosted by the Charlotte Branch of the NAACP. King famously tried out an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech during the visit. Photo: J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte.

King came to Charlotte again in 1963 when he spoke to a gathering of Black high school students, just days after JCSU students marched to protest segregation, and again in 1966 when spoke at JSCU’s centennial celebration. In 1968, Reginald Hawkins, then running for governor, invited King to speak for his campaign. King had to cancel that appearance because he had to go to Memphis, TN, to support the sanitation worker’s strike. He was assassinated there on April 4, 1968.

I hope you get a chance to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy this weekend. Many celebrations have gone virtual, but you can check out a round-up of programs at Charlotte On The Cheap for the most up-to-date information.

See ya next week!

Angel Johnston

Charlotte Museum of History 


About The Charlotte Museum of History

The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.


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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass

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