Martin Luther King Jr.’s Historic Visit to Charleston

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16 Jan 2020
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It’s incredible to think that only a little over 5 decades ago America was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967 racial conflict and Civil Rights activism was prominent throughout the country.  In July of that year two of the most violent and destructive race riots occurred on the streets of Newark, NJ and Detroit, MI. These events resulted in the deaths of 69 people, the injuries of nearly 2,000 people, and the arrests of 8,696 people. The aftermath of these events left people in fear and only further emphasized the great need for social change.

On July 30, 1967, only two weeks after these major riots, Martin Luther King Jr. visited the County Hall in Charleston to deliver a speech to the Lowcountry. It was initially thought that the content of this speech was lost, but thankfully the children of the 1960s Civil Rights journalist Eugene B. Sloan of The State Newspaper in Columbia, SC, discovered a reel of his old recordings. The gaps in this recording have been filled in by a short video clip in the archives at the University of South Carolina. Most of his 45-minute speech has been preserved between the two sources.

Eugene B. Sloan, a Civil Rights Journalist with The State Newspaper

Leading up to King’s visit, many locals in both the government and civilians were worried that he was coming to insight a riot in Charleston. True to his morals and philosophy of preaching love, Martin reassured the public of his true intentions by beginning his speech with, “Some people had put out that I had come to Charleston to start a riot, in fact I heard they had it out that I had been around here a week organizing a riot. It’s so amusing, I can never, you never you live in a situation where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as much as I preach about non-violence and as much as I talk about love, I don’t see how anybody could ever associate me with organizing a riot.”

Throughout his speech he covered an array of significant topics such as the historic race relations issues in America, the economic struggles of black people, and the dangers of the growing violent Black Power movement. In response to the recent riots he stated, “This is why today as I look to my brothers and sister engaging in violence in our cities I must continue to say, however much they refuse to listen to me, that this isn’t the way. From a moral point of view it isn’t the way. But from a practical point of view it isn’t the way…”

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at The County Hall in Charleston, SC 

In a way only Martin Luther King was capable of he turned the conversation back to the importance of building a community of love and non-violence to achieve the goals of Civil Rights Movement. He preached how, “Negroes end up burning their own communities down and then when you look at the casualty list, who gets killed? The vast majority are negroes. And so I’m not gonna give you a motto or preach a philosophy burn, baby burn, I’m gonna say build, baby build organize, baby, organize. I’ve decided to stick with love.  Somebody’s gotta have some sense in this world.”

Thanks to Martin Luther King Jr., the other non-violent Civil Rights leaders of his generation, and the many inspirational activists of the generations to follow, America has come so far in regard to race relations and equality.

If you are interested in learning more about the rich African American and Civil Rights history in Charleston, click click here for a variety of tours and museums you can visit during your stay.