Martin Luther King Jr. had come to Tulsa. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and people weren’t going to miss it.
A crowd of 1,500 showed up — the largest ever at that time for First Baptist Church North Tulsa. They squeezed in to hear King, a 31-year-old pastor who was changing America.
Patricia Boxley was there. She was 14 years old and with a church group that included her pastor. What she heard inspired her, and — like so many others — her life was influenced by the man who today is honored with Martin Luther King Day.
“The fact that he was speaking out on behalf of people’s rights. Not just black people …” said Boxley, who’s now 71 and lives in north Tulsa. “It was just an awesome experience.”
Three years before the March on Washington and King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech — and four years before the Civil Rights Act was signed in July 1964 — King delivered an address in Tulsa that remains powerful today.
“This is a man that has a message,” Boxley said, recalling what it was like that July 28, 1960, evening, when she managed to shake King’s hand and get his autograph. “It was such a message of hope. You were just in awe in his presence.”
The Tulsa World published a story the next day that included King’s main points. His words show the progress America has made. They also show how far the country still has to go to achieve his vision:
On the need for unity: “We must all live together as brothers or we will die together as fools.”
On the importance of exercising the right to vote: “In Atlanta, the situation is good, but there are few counties in Georgia where a Negro can register with ease and there are some in that state, and in Mississippi and Alabama, where his life is in danger if he attempts to register.”
On people who do not exercise their right to vote: “You are unfair to yourselves.”
On the need for blacks to be ready for opportunities they hadn’t previously had: “You must be prepared to compete with people. If you have planned to be just a good Negro lawyer or doctor or a good Negro anything in this new order, you have already flunked your matriculation exams.”
On nonviolent action in the fight for equality: “Though some have been put in jail, sometimes for months, some have been beaten and others have had lighted (cigarettes) thrown down their backs, your fellow men are acting with dignity and respect to keep an issue at the forefront of the conscience of the nation. As a result, 14 cities have opened lunch counters within six months. To have achieved this by court action would have taken three years and $200,000 to $300,000.”
On the need for perseverance: “To those who do not understand our longings and aspirations we must say, ‘We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to absorb suffering.’”
King’s words resonated. Boxley said she later attended the University of Kansas, something that may not have seemed possible for the 14-year-old before that night in Tulsa, or before King’s work fighting for civil rights.
“The doors had opened in 1963 so that I could go to the University of Kansas,” she said. “I know there had been people (of color) there before me, but it was like a new attitude.”
At Kansas, she followed King’s lead. She participated in a sit-in to help bring equality for minority students, and King sent a telegram supporting the peaceful protesters at KU.
“That was another remarkable thing,” said Boxley, who would turn her education into a 31-year career as a systems analyst with American Airlines and Sabre. “We were just shocked at first and then excited that he noticed us.”
Boxley said Gale Sayers, a KU student who was one of America’s best football players, was among the peaceful protesting students. She said protesters were arrested, but police were reluctant to jail the star athlete.
“He told them if they put us in jail, they had to put him in jail, too,” Boxley said. “So they let us all go.”
King led and inspired similar protests throughout the country, and America is a different country as a result. But, as President Barack Obama noted in his farewell speech, race remains a “potent and divisive” issue.
King, who was assassinated in 1968, probably would not have been surprised by that today, because 57 years ago in Tulsa, he warned a full congregation about the difficult nature of change. He also inspired them with a message of hope:
“It may be true that old man segregation is on his deathbed, figuratively speaking, but history has proved that the guardians of status quo are always on hand with oxygen tanks to keep him alive.
“If we go into this new order with bitterness in our hearts, the new order soon will become the same as the old.
“Someone must have sense enough to know that love is better than hate.”