Martin Luther King Day: The Rev. King’s fight for justice in South Florida

7:56 a.m. Monday, Jan. 15, 2018 Community
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at news conference at Hampton House in Miami in this 1960s file photo. It is said that King gave one of the early versions of his pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech at the Hampton House. (AP Photo/Battle Vaughan, Miami Herald, File)

Editor’s note: This story originally published on Jan. 19, 2014.

By Carlos Frias - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remained holed up in his Miami hotel.

For two days, police had told him it was too risky to leave the Four Ambassadors on Brickell Avenue. Death threats had been made against his life during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting.

Six weeks later, he would be dead.

This spring marks 46 years since King, the father of the fight for civil rights in America, was murdered — shot to death outside of a Memphis hotel on April 4, 1968.

But shortly before he went to Memphis for what would be his last act of social activism, intervening in a sanitary worker’s strike over oppressive working conditions and wages, King came to South Florida.

Tal Fair, president of the Urban League of Miami for the past 50 years, picked him up at the airport in late February and was within King’s close circle of colleagues that week.

“We had gotten word that he should not go to Memphis,” Fair remembers. “The whole lot of us were begging him not to go.”

King had been to Florida more than a dozen times, notably to St. Augustine where, on the city’s 400th anniversary in May of 1964, he appealed for an end to racial discrimination in the country’s oldest city — and was met with gunfire, riots and denied service in restaurants even after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Dr. Martin Luther King speaks at rally at an African-American church in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964, as sign hangs from podium reading — Dr. Martin Luther King is our leader. (AP Photo)

But he also had a long history with South Florida. In February 1958, he had made a rousing speech at Bethel AME Church in Miami to launch a campaign to double the number of registered black voters.

“Let us make our intentions crystal clear: We must and we will be free,” he said, according to a transcript from the King archives at Stanford University. “We want freedom now. We want the right to vote now. We do not want freedom fed to us in teaspoons over another 150 years.”

He followed that up by addressing the American Jewish Congress in Miami Beach in May, telling the audience, “There are Hitlers loose in America today, both in high and low places. As the tensions and bewilderment of economic problems become more severe, history’s scapegoats, the Jews, will be joined by new scapegoats, the Negroes.”

Ten years later, in February 1968, King arrived in Miami for the leadership training program for more than 150 ministers from more than 15 cities. He was exhausted, his voice hoarse and tired.

He had been on a grueling tour across the South, speaking to congregations and grassroots organizations about the importance of banding together, across economic lines, to stand against racial inequality.

“He was so gentle, unassuming,” Fair remembers. “You wouldn’t think he was as powerful as he appeared not to be.”

Desegregationist protester Charles Lingo, right, gets a spray of beer from a man sitting on a wall, as a group of white and African-American picketers walked through the streets in a continued drive to desegregate the city, June 20, 1964, St. Augustine. (AP Photo)

On Feb. 23, he addressed the ministers, telling them they had all been to the mountaintop, and now it was time to minister to the “valleys filled with men and women who know the aches and anguish of poverty,” according to the book “Going Down Jericho Road,” by Michael K. Honey, about King’s last campaign in Memphis.

And, King told them, their path would not be easy.

“It means taking up the cross. Taking it with all of its tension-packed agony and bearing that cross until it leaves the very marks of Jesus Christ on your body, and on your soul.”

He spoke of the pressure he felt, and that they, too, would feel. Mobilizing people in the inner city would prove difficult, building a people’s movement with middle-class ministers. Sullen during that long, exhausting stretch, King feared his grassroots efforts would not cross class lines.

“The bitterness is often greater toward that person who built up the hope, which could say, ‘I have a dream,’ but couldn’t produce the dream because of the failure and the sickness of the nation to respond to the dream,” he said, according to “Jericho Road.”

Just after his speech, Memphis ministers at the conference learned police back home had just attacked ministers and sanitation workers, who a week earlier had gone on strike, with clubs and mace. Fair, and others close to King at the Miami conference, tried to convince him not to go.

But a month later, King was in Memphis and part of a rally that went awry, deviating from his hymn of peaceable resistance, when one man was killed, 60 others injured and 200 arrested as police and protesters clashed.

On the night before he was killed there, he gave his famous lecture, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” where he acknowledged he may not live to see his cause for racial equality fulfilled — but was at peace that the movement had gained the momentum to outlive him.

A day later, King was dead.

Cities across America burned — and mourned — and Miami was in step with them.

“Our king had been killed,” Fair said, “our dream had been shattered.”