Part of the capacity crowd of some 2,700 at Grosse Pointe High School’s gymnatorium for Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit the night of Thursday, March 14, 1968.
January 17, 2013Two score and five years ago, a great American, in whose political activism helped advance the Civil Rights Movement and shape today's America, spoke before a capacity crowd of some 2,700 people inside Grosse Pointe High School's gymnatorium.
It was March 14, 1968, three weeks before his eventual assassination, and Martin Luther King Jr., visibly shaken, told reporters after leaving the stage that night "he had never experienced such vocal opposition at an indoor meeting."
"Throughout Dr. King's speech he was interrupted by members of Breakthrough, who shouted derogatory remarks," read an excerpt from The Grosse Pointe News's coverage of the event. "Each time the hecklers were quietly escorted from the gymnatorium. At one point, Don Lobsinger, leader of Breakthrough, shouted 'Traitor' and dramatically stomped out of the gymnatorium."
Meanwhile, outside the high school some 200 picketers from Breakthrough, an ultra-conservative right-wing group, congregated in front of the building and demonstrated against King's visit that nearly never was.
According to an account published in the Detroit Free Press by Jude Huetteman, at the time program chairman for the Human Relations Council in Grosse Pointe, the group responsible for staging the event, King was one of several "big name" speakers considered by the council. Among others were Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young Jr., and Ralph Bunche.
The first choice, Wilkins, was difficult to locate which led Huetteman to attempt to contact her next choice, King, through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He responded three weeks later with a date, Thursday, March 14, setting in motion "the most hectic, fear-filled, nerve-shattering, sad and important" few months in Huetteman's life.
"We feel that his visit here symbolizes the concerns of thousands of white people for the injustice Negroes have suffered too long," Harry C. Meserve, council president, told The Grosse Pointe News at the time about the purpose of sponsoring and hosting King at the school. "Dr. King's presentation should furnish both information and inspiration for those in our community who are concerned about the Negro's search for justice."
It also symbolized the concerns of thousands of white people for the supposed traitor-y of King. And they were more vocal and more hostile than his supporters.
During those few months, discussions at board meetings grew more and more heated between elected members and among the standing room-only crowds in attendance at Maire Elementary School; the council was forced into taking out a one million dollar insurance policy in case of damage to the high school; and Huetteman, others from the council and the five board members in support of King's visit received countless hate mail and death threats on theirs and their families' lives, leading them to strongly reconsider even having King come.
In those few months, Grosse Pointe, a community of about 60,000, stood divided between King's supporters and protestors, a microcosm of the national divide resulting from the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, the latter of which King outwardly championed against, creating an ever-growing population against his cause.
The growing number of hostiles led the FBI to get involved in protecting King during his visit to Grosse Pointe. It also led then-Grosse Pointe Farms Police Chief, Jack Roh, to ride on King's lap, shielding him from any possible attacks as they drove down toward Grosse Pointe High School. And it led King, after giving his speech, "The Other America," in front of a capacity crowd of some 2,700 people, a mixture of hecklers, supporters and those simply interested in being part of the historic event, to acknowledge that crowd as the most vocally opposed he had experienced at the time.
Then, exactly three weeks later, April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Huetteman said in the Free Press article she later read the FBI report on James Earl Ray, King's shooter, placed him in Windsor the week of King's Grosse Pointe visit. "Maybe he was (at Grosse Pointe High School) that night," she said. "We will never know. If so, we only postponed the inevitable."
For more information about King's time in Grosse Pointe, visit the section on the Grosse Pointe Historical Society's web site dedicated to the event at gphistorical.org/mlk/index.htm or check out The Grosse Pointe News's coverage in past issues located in the Grosse Pointe Public Library's local history archives at digitize.gp.lib.mi.us/digitize/newspapers/gpnews.htm.