Martin Luther King Jr. visited the DU campus twice, first in 1964 and later in 1967. In 1964 he spoke before a crowd of 600 in the old Student Union Building (now the south end of the Driscoll Student Center) in an appearance sponsored by the local Shorter Community AME Church. The next year he would become the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
King returned to DU in 1967 and spoke at the 5,000-seat DU Fieldhouse — located where the Ritchie Center now stands — on May 18. Admission was $1 for students and faculty and $2 for the general public. His topic was “The Future of Integration.”
The 38-year-old had a busy day. His plane arrived at 5:20 p.m. at the old Stapleton airport, and he flew out of Denver for Chicago later that night after an airport press conference.
Editor’s note: This story from a past issue of the University of Denver Magazine is being reprinted in honor of DU’s 150th anniversary year. Visit the sesquicentennial website for more on DU history and to join the Pioneer Network.
King had been invited to speak at DU by the student senate, and the arena was only about half full. Describing the future of integration, King said that “most people see integration in romantic and aesthetic terms, but true integration means shared power. I’m in the heart-changing business, but if morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.”
Referring to white racists, King noted that “the law can’t make him love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me.”
In addition to speaking about integration, King also voiced his objection to the ongoing Vietnam War, which resulted in a few scattered boos from the audience. In a question-and-answer session after his presentation King was asked about how students should respond to the military draft. His answer? “Don’t go. I could not fight in Vietnam. I could not do it in good conscience.” As a minister, King himself was exempt from the draft.
Outside the fieldhouse “a group of youths,” as they were described by the Rocky Mountain News, held up a large bedsheet sign saying “Rights for Whites.”
Across the street, on old fraternity row, a cross was burned atop an abandoned car later that night. When Denver police and firefighters arrived to put out the flames, the crowd scattered toward the corner of University and Evans, where students staged a sit-in and later blocked traffic at University and Buchtel. The Clarion reported that “approximately 15 policemen, armed with clubs, were on hand to prevent the students from moving up to the Valley Highway.”
Less than a year later King would be dead, shot by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, as King stood on the balcony of his rented room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. He had gone to Memphis to support striking garbage haulers. In 1986 Martin Luther King Day was established as a federal holiday.
In January 2008, King’s son Martin Luther King III spoke at DU’s Newman Center, kicking off two weeks of multicultural events to honor his father’s birth. With the world at war and a billion children living in poverty, King questioned whether we have learned the lessons of nonviolent change taught by his father.
“I am happy to observe my father’s birth,” King told the crowd of 600. “I’m not sure we can totally celebrate yet.”