King’s speech, dubbed “The Other America,” began innocently enough on this day. He explained that black children weren’t reaching their potential because of the deplorable learning environment.
“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,” King said.
A woman shouted at King from the audience, joining other hecklers who called him a “traitor” and demanded he leave.
Those close to King noticed that his normally steady hands were shaking. His forehead glistened in sweat.
But he continued, and the hecklers were drowned out by deafening applause.
King’s speech was aimed at a white suburban audience. He urged supporters to stand up and oppose inequality.
“It may well be that we may have to repent in this generation for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time,” King said.
King could have been speaking today. The preacher said it was unacceptable that nearly 9% of the black community was unemployed. In Detroit, the current unemployment rate is 17%. Schools are virtual dropout factories. And more than half of the city’s children live in poverty.
“Until (racism) is removed, there will be people walking the streets, living in their humble dwellings feeling that they are nobody, feeling that they have no dignity and feeling that they are not respected,” King said. “The first thing that must be on the agenda of our nation is to get rid of racism.”
Hecklers continued to berate King. When he expressed opposition to the Vietnam War, which he called “unjust, ill-considered, evil, costly, unwinable,” some in the audience became incensed. Security removed three or four people.
An undercover FBI agent in the audience reported that King’s speech was peaceful.
Less than a year after the deadly 1967 riots in Detroit, King advocated nonviolence.
“I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt,” King said. “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
The audience erupted in applause; others booed.
A bewildered King spoke at a press conference after the speech, saying he had never faced such hostility at an indoor event.
It was one of King’s most memorable – and often overlooked – speeches. Read the entire speech here.
Three weeks later, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Steve Neavling, “Martin Luther King Jr. defied hecklers in Grosse Pointe speech in 1968“, Motor City Muckracker, January 15, 2017.