Patrick Parr

This is not the life I expected to lead. But gradually you take some responsibility, then a little more, until finally you are not in control anymore. You have to give yourself entirely. Then once you make up your mind that you are giving yourself, then you are prepared to do anything that serves the Cause and the Movement. I have reached that point. I have no option anymore about what I will do. I have given myself fully.

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[1]

The bomb scare that night was the least of his worries. As far as death threats were concerned, Dr. King had experienced his fair share of close calls. His home had been bombed—he’d been stabbed with a letter opener, hit with rocks, eggs, fists, and arrested over fifteen times. And, yes, there had been plenty of bomb scares similar to what occurred inside the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium on the night of 16 October 1967.

Dr. King visited the University of Southern California campus to deliver a speech titled “The Negro in America.” He flew United Airlines and arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport at 6:35 p.m., appearing calm yet tired. At this stage of his life, King had become more controversial than ever to the American public. He’d publicly denounced the Vietnam War in a fiery April 1967 speech in New York, angering not only pro-war advocates but also his own supporters who believed he was moving himself away from his core cause of civil rights. He’d gained weight over the years, and grew numb to the fear of losing his life.[2]

Dr. King’s Los Angeles visit was preceded by a similar speech delivered on Sacramento State College’s football field, speaking out on Vietnam to an audience of several thousand: “Our nation is trying to fight two wars at the same time, the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty, and is losing both.”[3] As soon as he finished, King headed for the local airport. According to the late journalist David Halberstam, this was Dr. King’s routine: “Most of King’s life is spent going to airports, and it is the only time to talk to him.”[4]

In Los Angeles, he was greeted by a USC committee and guided to a car. As had become his standard outfit, King wore a black suit, rumpled from the flight, with a white collared shirt and gray tie. Some, such as then Daily Trojan editor Hal Lancaster, were able to see King up close, and what affected the reporter the most was the fatigue in the reverend’s eyes:. “Any man who averages three hotel rooms a week is bound to be tired.”[5]

After dropping off his luggage at a Hyatt, Dr. King got back into the car and headed for the USC campus. He’d started to wake up and looked out the window of the car, the city of Los Angeles passing by. Dr. King spoke to those in the car about how California and the Catholic Church had “gone backwards” in helping to enact a fair housing plan. One example of ‘fairness,’ would be an attempt to eliminate discrimination while a potential tenant’s application is being processed. As King recalled, California at one time “had an open housing act here and went back and abolished it.” To the reverend, it was simply another case of the church not taking enough social responsibility in the communities where they still held sway. “It has been a great tragedy of the church that this has been considered secondary. The church must be concerned with the total man, his physical as well as spiritual being.”[6]

At 7:45 p.m., Dr. King entered a room inside USC’s Bovard Auditorium. He wanted some time to himself before he went out. As he collected his thoughts, around eighteen hundred people filled the auditorium, eager to see the reverend in the flesh.

He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought.

Just after eight, Dr. King, after an introduction, walked up to the podium. At 5’7” he was not an imposing presence on stage, but this setting had become his second home. Unassuming and mellow off stage, King had a knack for bringing himself to life as he spoke to a crowd. On this night, he started slowly, deliberately, his slow southern drawl allowing everyone to follow his every word. The longer he spoke, the quicker his words came—emotions bubbling to the surface….

But around 8:30 p.m. as Dr. King retold the history and plight of the black American, the L.A. Fire Department received an anonymous phone call from someone who said there was a bomb inside the Bovard Auditorium, and that it would detonate “in fifteen minutes.” With the fear planted, the crowd evacuated Bovard, and Dr. King was taken by campus police to a conference room. Just before leaving the stage, Dr. King wanted to reassure his listeners to “please return because there are some very important things I still have to say.”[7]

They returned, and when Dr. King once again stepped behind the podium, he’d grown somewhat. He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought. Dr. King told the now active audience (many of them students) to deny the ‘myths’ halting the progress of African-Americans.

One of the myths involved time. Just give the cause enough time, and everything will work itself out. But King had no interest in being patient. To him, “time is neutral, and can be used either constructively or destructively.”[8]

Another myth rested in the notion that legislation was unnecessary, and all that was needed was for the general public to have a change of heart.

With his voice booming off the auditorium walls, Dr. King disagreed:

I’m a Baptist preacher, and I’m in the heart-changing business… but while morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated, and while the law can’t make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me.[9]

The biggest round of applause came from his comments on the war in Vietnam. Dr. King surely knew there were hundreds of students anxious of being drafted, and furious over the fact that American soldiers, some family and friends, were being killed every day. Dr. King demanded that America “stand up and say to the world we made a mistake in Vietnam… justice is indivisible, but injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[10]

The bomb scare had sadly caused Dr. King to leave without what had been a pre-planned question and answer session. He had another plane to catch. A rally in Houston was next, along with two smoke bombs. Immediately after that, King, his brother A.D., Wyatt Walker, and Ralph Abernathy were to report directly to a Birmingham, Alabama prison, obeying a Supreme Court order regarding a long-appealed ‘contempt’ offense that occurred in 1963. Such had been his life ever since giving himself “entirely” to the movement. On the college campuses in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he’d found support among the younger anti-war generation, but these events were few and far between. The appeal of ‘black power’ had taken hold, and King’s message of nonviolence had started to lose its authority over his own supporters.

Fifty years later, the general American public now annually remembers the triumphs of Martin Luther King Jr.—the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—and we have chosen to idolize him with memorials and statues, and given dozens of schools and highways his name. But these honors are empty if we choose to ignore the sacrifice and message of a man who, according to Christine Farris, King’s sister, was an “ordinary and average man.” Perhaps sociologist Charles Vert Willie, one of King’s friends and college classmates, said it best: “By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”[11]

15_King_M_L_USC_10-16-1967_2_web

Photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.

 

Notes

  • Header image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.

[1] Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 163.

[2] Stan Metzler, The Daily Trojan, 16 October 1967.

[3] Long Beach Independent, 17 October 1967, A2 and San Bernardino County Sun AP Report, 17 October 1967, where it appears King delivered similar speeches in Sacramento and Los Angeles on that same day.

[4]David Halberstam, “The Second Coming of Martin Luther King,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1967.

[5] Hal Lancaster, “The Calm Martin Luther King,” The Daily Trojan, 17 October 1967.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fred Swegles, “Bomb scare considered normal event for King,” The Daily Trojan, 18 October 1967; Melinda Tonks, “Forum continues to draw notable figures,” The Daily Trojan, 18 October 1967.

[8] Stan Metzler, “King’s call for civil action marred by bomb scare,” The Daily Trojan, 17 October 1967.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 579.

 

Patrick Parr has had his work appear in History Today, The Humanist and The Japan Times, among other publications. His forthcoming book is titled, The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, coming 2018 with Chicago Review Press.

Copyright: © 2017 Patrick Parr. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

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