When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Fort Wayne in 1963, hatred of black people in America was a part of the law, taught in schools, condoned in our police and fire departments, and a part of everyday life.
It was Mississippi burning, the Tulsa Massacre, George Wallace and his Alabama state troopers barring the schoolhouse door, and Little Rock. There was separate seating in restaurants, whites-only water fountains, water hoses, truncheons and police unleashing dogs on peaceful protesters.
There was a publication called the Negro Motorist Green Book that sold itself as a guide “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.”
“Difficulties” might range from a beating to being shot. “Embarrassments” could range from humiliation to a few broken teeth.
All of us older than 40 could add a few stories. “Freedom Riders” were shot, and “northern agitators” ended up at the bottom of the Mississippi River. There were a thousand Emmitt Tills, there were lynchings, economic redlining, “Negros Need Not Apply.”
We could all go on and on and on, but on that day in June of 1963, a couple thousand people packed the Scottish Rite Auditorium to hear King speak to Fort Wayne. Legendary Councilman John Nuckols was there, Councilman Glynn Hines' dad was there, as were most of the black leaders in the community to hear a speech that is all but lost to time.Among the 2,000 were a few hundred white men and women, including at least two future mayors, who had had enough of racial humiliation; outside were protesters who lined Berry Street across from the auditorium. Confederate flags flew along with jeers and insults, but the day was a big step forward.
Last Tuesday night, newly minted City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers and second-term Councilman Russ Jehl introduced a resolution to commemorate the speech in a meaningful way. As Lincoln said, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Martin Luther King Jr. undoubtedly is one of the greatest Americans ever, and he came here, he spoke words of harmony to us, and many resolved then to act and to take the next and the next and the next steps toward fairness and reconciliation.
The vote by council was unanimous. Members of the NAACP, the Martin Luther King Club, Arts United and others were there to endorse the resolution and to promise to raise the money to make whatever memorial arises altogether fitting and proper. Former city councilman and state legislator Mitch Harper was also there, one of Fort Wayne's historically finest politicians, to add his bit of context.
Progress is not linear, but more like a ratchet that occasionally slips a tooth and has then to click a few teeth forward to advance again. The history of Fort Wayne is one of slow progress; witness the indignation over Mad Anthony Wayne Day. First the natives were murdered or relocated by American settlers, then when the German settlers arrived the resident Anglos ridiculed them. When the Macedonians, Greeks and Romanians arrived here, the same humiliation was visited on them by the Anglos and Germans.
Each successive wave of immigrants has suffered the same, especially the African American descendants of slaves. Previous City Councils have paid lip service to racial harmony in Fort Wayne, as Harper noted. There was, he said with moist eyes, long-winded and unproductive discussion on council as to a fitting tribute to King.
The idea, he said, was talked to death at council, so he carried a bill through the Indiana legislature in the 1980s to rename the Clinton Street Bridge in honor of King, but equally in honor of the African Americans among us who have achieved remarkable things despite the callousness around them.
Councilman Hines reminded us of how the lighting of the MLK bridge was talked to death by council, but he, the mayor and others found money to make that bridge, like the MLK speech, a point of pride in our community.
Last week's council vote was a big step forward for Fort Wayne with miles to go on our path ahead.
The next step is action on a memorial, which is but a symbolic reminder of the work we have ahead to fulfill the words of that June 1963 speech.
Jim Sack is a Fort Wayne resident.