Choirs were assembled, the seats were full and a host of local clergy and black leaders readied to witness why they had brought this young charismatic minister to Fort Wayne.
Martin Luther King Jr., then a 34-year-old controversial figure in the civil rights movement, did not disappoint. Fresh from a Birmingham, Ala., jail, King stood before an overflow crowd at the Scottish Rite Auditorium 50 years ago today and declared, as he often did, We shall overcome.
We will win our freedom and win you in the process, he said. We will develop a divine discontent about discrimination in all its forms, even the subtle form in Indiana. We will speed the day when all men join hands and sing, free at last.
It would be a three-hour event before an enthusiastic audience, 30 percent to 40 percent of them white.
A future mayor would get King’s autograph. Another young man, Miles Edwards, whose older sister was told to take him with her to the speech, would also have a brush with fame.
I was just so amazed at Dr. King speaking. I was just so enthralled, said Edwards, who was 12 at the time. He had the audience on the edge of their seats, and they were applauding. And the African-American experience, regardless of what denomination or no denomination, people were Amen.’ That’s the truth, and I was just so, so enthralled by that.
People were turned away at the door.
Walter Helmke, then Allen County prosecutor, stood outside monitoring the event with a security cadre of city, county and state police. Inside, his son, Paul, was seated onstage at the back with his good friend, Peter Meister, at the invitation of Meister’s father, the Rev. John W. Meister. As head pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Meister was one of the clergy who helped organize the event.
The elder Helmke was aware of threats to bomb the Scottish Rite but didn’t tell his son, assured by the FBI there was nothing to be concerned about.
I was outside and worrying about his safety inside, Walter Helmke said recently,
For Paul Helmke, hearing King’s speech from feet away would be a highlight of his life.
Even at the age of 14, the future Fort Wayne mayor paid attention to current events and was aware of racial problems in the South. He had grown up with black friends. Still, Fort Wayne schools were largely segregated and he would gradually learn about discrimination in his own town.
You learn later that there are those that hate. That’s sort of what I was reading, learning about in the country with how the civil rights movement was being responded to in the South, Paul Helmke recalls. But I don’t think I was quite aware of the prejudices that existed in the North, just that there probably was more separation.
Ralph Abernathy, a close King associate, spoke first and made a strong plea for support, both financial and moral. The contributions were collected in large white buckets.
With her brother in tow, Edwards’ sister, Elaine Edwards-Pruitt, sped to the Scottish Rite with friends after their South Side High School graduation ceremony at Memorial Coliseum. With the event already started, the girls were asked to count the contributions.
There were big KFC buckets of money that we were counting, though how much she can’t remember, Edwards-Pruitt said recently. And by the time we had finished, it was over. Miles did get to go in and hear him, at least.
Miles Edwards was leaning against an east wall listening to the speakers. His first thoughts of civil rights were seeing the body of Emmett Till in a magazine. Till, a Chicago teenager visiting family in Mississippi, was killed in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
I had nightmares when I saw that. It was in a magazine and they showed him in the casket in Chicago with his mother, Edwards said. She wanted the casket open so people could see. He was all bloated and distorted. ... That was very, very disturbing to me.
As the event wrapped up, the choirs sang. Edwards said it was the first time he recalled hearing the song We Shall Overcome.
Paul Helmke approached King for an autograph. Helmke had donated a quarter or 50 cents to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King led. He handed King the donation receipt to sign and the two shook hands.
It wasn’t just a quick scrawl you get from some people. It was a very legible autograph, Helmke recalls. The whole event was very moving and you really felt you were in the middle of history. It was a crucial time for civil rights in the country.
The autograph would be framed with the cover of Time Magazine naming King 1963 Man of the Year and hang in Helmke’s office during his three terms as mayor.
Outside the Scottish Rite, Helmke’s father relaxed. The meeting ended peacefully.
I was relieved and Mayor (Paul Mike) Burns was relieved, and so we were all happy it ended well, Walter Helmke said.
But the day wasn’t over for Miles Edwards and his sister.
After the Scottish Rite event, a reception for King was held at First Presbyterian Church. Miles and Elaine joined others there. Elaine didn’t want to run after her younger brother, so she sat him down.
My sister said, You sit down here, you stay and don’t move,’ Edwards recalls. She was very bossy.
King was introduced to Elaine and the other girls who helped count the collection. Then his attention turned to Miles sitting alone. Well, who’s this young man over here? he asked Elaine.
I said, oh, that’s nobody. It’s just my little brother, Edwards-Pruitt recalls laughing. I was really kind of put out.
King laughed and walked over to introduce himself to Miles, still sitting where he was told to.
He asked me about my name. He asked me what grade I was in. I was just coming out of the sixth grade. He engaged in small talk, Miles Edwards said.
After a few minutes, Abernathy interrupted to tell King they had a flight to catch.
So, he stood me up and he shook my hand and he put his left hand on me and said, Well, grow strong, Miles. Grow strong.
Two months later, Miles Edwards and his family gathered in front of the TV to watch King deliver his I Have a Dream speech in Washington. As more than 200,000 demonstrators stood before this captivating speaker, young Miles pondered his chance meeting with King.
Who would have thought as a 12-year-old kid, that here’s an icon, and I really did not understand or realize the magnitude of his charismatic personality until I saw those thousands of people on the Mall in Washington, that here was this man that came and introduced himself to me.
King moved on to other speeches and other demonstrations. The civil rights movement fought on. A week after King’s Fort Wayne speech, Mississippi black activist Medgar Evers was murdered. Five years later, King would also die from an assassin’s bullet.
But a testament to the changing times came on the day King spoke here 50 years ago. It would be front-page news the next day in The Journal Gazette, with a headline even larger than that describing the civil rights leader’s speech:
Negro Enrolls Peacefully As Student At Ole Miss.