It was four months after he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and only four weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
On the night of December 18th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Kalamazoo to deliver a speech on the campus of Western Michigan University. It’s not a well-known speech. It’s not even the most well-known speech King gave in Michigan.
One of the reasons it’s not well-known is because the recording of the speech was “lost” for almost 30 years. According to WMU, it was rediscovered in 1997 after being stored in a basement.
The WMU University Libraries now have full text of the speech, along with photos and historical context posted online here.
King covered a lot of ground that night in the WMU Field House, in front of an estimated audience of 2,000 people. The transcript shows that even in 1963, in the midst of the most important year of the civil rights struggle, King was already thinking about the anti-militarism and the struggle for economic justice that would come to define his later career:
“[T]here are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence. But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence, and the alternative to disarmament.”
During the question and answer session, King also addressed the possible impact of automation in the workplace, and the need for jobs to ensure equality:
“So the first thing I'm concerned about is full employment for everybody. Now the Negro has suffered more because of automation than whites because the Negro, with limited educational opportunities and having been denied apprenticeship training in so many instances and outright discrimination, has been limited to unskilled and semi‐skilled labor. In the day of automation, these are the jobs that are passing away so the Negro gets a double for outright discrimination and automation doing away with certain jobs. I'm concerned about full employment.”
King advocated for a “domestic Marshall Plan” to help black workers, and to spread economic equality.
Many of these ideas appeared in other King speeches, and in other writing.
One part that made his Kalamazoo speech unique is the timing of when he spoke.
December of 1963 crucial time in the civil rights movement. The summer before, John F. Kennedy had proposed new civil rights legislation. In August, more than 200,000 people took part in the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous speech. By fall, momentum was building in Congress to pass what would later become the Civil Rights Act. Then came Kennedy's assassination.
King clearly had it on his mind that night in Kalamazoo. He said there must be no hesitation in getting the civil rights laws passed.
“There is a great need at this hour for all people of good will of this nation to get together and say that this legislation must be passed and that it must be passed soon,” King said, according the WMU transcript. “I'm convinced that if it is not passed, this ugly sore of racial segregation on the body politic of our nation will suddenly turn malignant and we will be inflicted with an incurable cancer that will totally destroy the soul of American society.”
Later, a question came from the audience asking whether Kennedy’s death would alter the “pace of integration” in America.
“I think it points, and this is the final thing that I'd like to say, it points that sometimes a man does more in his death than he could have ever done in life,” King said, prophetically. “Sometimes we must in history take an evil situation and wring the good out of it.”
You can also listen to an interview about Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Western Michigan University from WMUK here.