Grosse Pointe citizens reflect on MLK’s legacy
January 19, 2017
Click here to listen to Dr. King’s speech “The Other America,” given in South’s gymnasium three weeks before his assassination.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of more than 200,000 people in the nation’s capital, ready to give a speech entitled “Normalcy–Never Again.” Near the end of the speech, King suddenly spouted the famous phrase: “I have a dream…” This impromptu change of plans made this particular speech one of the most highly regarded speeches of all time. Although not forgotten, King’s day of honor, MLK Day on Jan.16, seems to have had its importance diminished by some.
Daniel Kuhnlein ‘17 said he once had to deal with a coach who did not understand the importance of the holiday.
“One of my sports teams’ coaches gives practice off on Labor Day but does not give practice off on MLK Day,” Kuhnlein said. “I texted him on Labor Day when I found out there was no practice and I said, ‘I think all holidays should be treated equally and you shouldn’t give some off and some not off. You need to set a precedent. But there is one holiday you make us practice on that celebrates someone who spoke out.”’
Kuhnlein said the reply he got suggested that MLK Day was only a holiday for black people, the coach saying that the black people at his fiancée’s work “don’t complain about not getting MLK Day off.”
“I had to explain to him that MLK Day is not a black holiday; it’s an American holiday that celebrates all Americans and the equality of all Americans,” Kuhnlein said. “You cannot understand how mad I was.”
Lenise Freeman ‘19 said that on MLK Day she wants people to take into consideration that King was out there fighting for everyone’s equality.
“It takes a lot for someone to put themselves out there and actually do that,” Freeman said of King.
Freeman and Kuhnlein both said that on MLK Day they try to remember King in a special way. Freeman usually listens to part of King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Kuhnlein remembered hearing the speech read by a student when he was in kindergarten.
“That made me think that we had that day off not for professional development, not for the St. Joan of Arc fair. We had that day off to celebrate an American who was alive during most of our parents or grandparents’ lives,” Kuhnlein said. “The history of MLK is so recent and there’s so much to dive into that I think we should all explore his history.”
Kathryn Williamson ‘17 gives back to the community on MLK Day with her family and church group, she said.
“Last year we did something for the Empty Bowls Project and then we went to this school and we made Valentine’s Day cards for inner-city kids who are struggling and need support,” Williamson said.
The Empty Bowls Project works to raise awareness for Cass Community Social Services, who is working to feed hungry people in Detroit.
Williamson’s grandfather, Tom Smith, once served as a bodyguard for King on his 1965 visit to Villanova University in Pennsylvania, Williamson said.
“I was a football player on Villanova’s football team and five of the senior football players, of which I was one, were asked to protect him and be a guard body for him as he left our business administration building and walked to the auditorium,” Smith said. “We were deployed into the stands in the auditorium to make sure that he was protected and watched so that nobody went to the stage or got out of order or whatever it might be.”
Smith found a quote in his yearbook from King’s speech he made at Villanova, which read that “every man must have something he is willing to die for.” Smith said he never thought King might lose his life for what he stood for.
“I had no idea then that anybody would attempt to take his life, but it was several years later that it happened, a tragic, very terrible thing,” Smith said.
Three weeks before his assassination in March of 1968, King gave a speech to a crowd in South’s gym. While King had a close, unique connection to Grosse Pointe, it was marred by rude interruptions and protests.
Ruth Zinn, who attended the speech, recalled her experience that night.
“(King) was mesmerizing because he has this absolutely fabulous voice and you couldn’t take your eyes off of him because he’s just that kind of charismatic sort of person,” Zinn said. “I remember the message being one of hope, and racial justice necessary for our country.”
King’s speech was entitled “The Other America.” King said that there were literally two Americas, one prosperous and respected and the other inferior and ignored.
“Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one,” King said. “One America is beautiful for situation. In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them…In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.”
King spoke of the opportunities the white population of America were given, having been given the privilege of living what he said was a more advantaged life.
“But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular, walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of having wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to-wall rats and roaches,” King said.
King mentioned that the youth of the other America weren’t given the same educational opportunities as the children of the white America.
“In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out,” King said.
During his speech, King was frequently interrupted, either by applause or disagreement.
“Donald Lobsinger and his group from Breakthrough come marching in and really they were protesting Dr. King’s position on the Vietnam War,” Zinn said. “Dr. King was in favor of getting out of it and Lobsinger thought he was a Communist.”
Breakthrough, a pro-Vietnam War and anti civil rights group, was started locally in the 1960s by Donald Lobsinger.
“We had a huge demonstration at Grosse Pointe High School when Martin Luther King was invited to speak there. That gymnasium was packed. It was a cold winter night and it was snowing. We had about two to three-hundred people outside that school protesting Martin Luther King. Because Martin Luther King and his communist associations and his communist background, Martin Luther King was no patriot. He was an enemy of the United States! He supported the communists during the Vietnam War!” Lobsinger said in an interview with the Detroit Historical Society. “Martin Luther King had a press conference the next day and said that never in his experience did he experience anything like this opposition at Grosse Pointe High School at an indoor meeting.”
Although Breakthrough disbanded in the 1990s, Lobsinger said as long as he is still breathing, Breakthrough lives.
“I do remember that Breakthrough interrupted his speech, but my stronger memory were the hundreds of people who called them down and rose in a standing ovation to his speech,” Pamela Cubberly wrote in a letter. At the time, Cubberly was a senior at South, which back then was known as Grosse Pointe High School.
Ed Egnatios, who works with the WK Kellogg Foundation, an organization dedicated to racial equity in all their work, was a high school senior when King came to Grosse Pointe.
“One of the founders of the Inter-Faith Center was on the GP School Board and received death threats after approving Dr. King to speak,” Egnatios said. The Inter-Faith Center was founded in 1969 after King’s murder.
Egnatios said that people still have too much denial of Grosse Pointe history.
“(We still have too much of a) color blindness myth making instead of dismantling the racial hatred and institutional forms of racism that hold back all of us– white folks and folks of color together,” Egnatios said.
Egnatios also said that King has been a guiding light for him since his teenage years.
Steve Spreitzer, who runs a 75-year old human relations and racial justice organization, said that most Grosse Pointe residents are on their journey of racial awareness and healing. He also referred to King as our north star for the racial healing and justice work needed to make us whole.
“The work for racial healing, for racial justice is complex and humbling, leading us to each other for understanding and joint action,” Spreitzer said. “(Residents of Grosse Pointe are) poised to come together to work together to make Grosse Pointe a place where all people are welcome and treated fairly.”
Principal Moussa Hamka believes it is evident by progress elsewhere in the country that Grosse Pointe has moved forward as well.
“The Jim Crow laws have been eliminated. The mere fact that in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, blacks in certain parts of the country couldn’t drink from the same drinking fountain as whites tells you that as a country we’ve progressed,” Hamka said. “From what I hear anecdotally…I think that the nation, the state and the community have all made a lot of progress.”
The chair that King is believed to have sat in while at South sits in Hamka’s office, with a photograph of the activist taken at South hanging above it.
“Not many high school principals can say that Martin Luther King visited their school,” Hamka said.
The 50th anniversary of King’s death is in March of next year. Kuhnlein believes the United States needs to acknowledge this great leader more publicly.
“There are a lot of holidays that America celebrates, about one each month. There’s one in October called Columbus Day and we celebrate the first European, besides the Vikings, to discover America. Christopher Columbus gave disease to millions of indigenous Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke up and talked about race issues in a time where that was not heavily accepted,” Kuhnlein said. “MLK was courageous and he was above and beyond a normal American citizen and he was killed passionately fighting for what he believed in.”
Kuhnlein said that King should continue to inspire Americans.
“The history of MLK is so recent and there’s so much to dive into that I think we should all explore his history,” Kuhnlein said.
Zinn said our actions can show that we want to continue to honor King and his legacy.
“The way we treat our fellow man or woman in this world is one of the best ways we can (honor him),” Zinn said. “All of us have a job to do and to show our concern and acceptance of people of all nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds…everything.”
In the final moments of King’s speech at South, he spouted words of hope and encouragement, and there were no interruptions.
“So however difficult it is during this period, however difficult it is to continue to live with the agony and the continued existence of racism, however difficult it is to live amidst the constant hurt, the constant insult and the constant disrespect, I can still sing we shall overcome. We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” King said in his speech.
He quoted poets and the Bible, sticking with the theme of “we shall overcome” as the crowd sat silently. In the audio recording, King’s booming voice rings out to the crowd in the final seconds.
“With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children all over this nation– black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, We are Free At Last.””