The Day MLK Came To Iowa City.

In November 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. came to SUI to discuss the future of discrimination in the United States. The Daily Iowan was there to cover it.

On a fall night in 1959 — four years after Rosa Parks made her stand and five years before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 — Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in the SUI’s Iowa Memorial Union Ballroom, urging the standing-room-only crowd to not fall into complacency on the march toward social justice. On this page, we take a moment to remember…

The IMU Ballroom is reserved for large public events such as this SUI orchestra concert. From reports of that evening in November 1959 – the ballroom was packed for Dr. King’s speech.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable,” said the 30-year-old Alabama pastor during a lecture in the IMU’s main lounge. “Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle — the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself,” King said. “We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to the truth as we see it.”

The Cedar Rapids Gazette (left) and Iowa City Press Citizen (right) also ran short articles on Thursday, November 12, 1959.

“What can an Iowa Negro do about the subtle discrimination he meets everyday in such places as hotels and when he goes for a haircut?” Dr. King asked in Iowa City. “There should be some organized effort to destroy these subtle barriers in the North, the Negro and white must join to make this more than a racial issue but an issue between justice and injustice.”

Dr. King, who earlier in 1959 had visited India to study Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance, spoke to the press about the importance of taking action in a peaceful manner.

Dr. King concluded his evening speech with the request that his audience be “maladjusted” in the sense that they not adjust to the evils of segregation. He said that the world is in desperate need of the maladjustment that made such men as Lincoln and Jefferson stand out “in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery” and say that all men are created equal.

Dianna Penny, then 18, was in the crowd the night King gave his lecture at SUI. Her father, the Rev. Fred L. Penny, was the pastor at Bethel AME, and had picked up Dr. King at the airport near Cedar Rapids. They made a brief stop at the church before Penny dropped King off at the Hotel Jefferson downtown.

Penny remembers the huge crowd on hand to hear King speak, and the excitement of being introduced to him afterward. “First of all, it was standing-room only,” Penny said. “He gave a stirring lecture, of course, followed by a question-and-answer session. I was able to meet him afterward and shake his hand.” Read more about Bethel AME here.

Former UI President Willard Sandy Boyd recalls being at the IMU that night in 1959 when King gave his address, titled “The Future of Integration.”

“The main message was, of course, opening up society and getting rid of segregation,” said Boyd, then a law professor at SUI and an early human rights champion in Iowa City. “He was an extraordinary orator. He was a preacher and had that wonderful delivery. Not only was the content strong, but the delivery was powerful.”

SUI had been open historically to black students, but it wasn’t until after the second World War that they were allowed in the dorms. In the community, black students and residents faced discrimination when looking for housing or even finding a place to get their hair cut, Boyd said. In the early 1960s, Boyd served as chairman of the newly created Human Rights Committee at the University of Iowa and helped create a commission on human rights for the city of Iowa City, from which a fair housing ordinance emerged. “It’s a never-ending frontier — we always need to move forward,” said Boyd, noting that even today the university has work to do when it comes to diversity.

Professor Robert Michaelson of the SUI School of Religion, the Rev. Lewis Dunnington, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are pictured (left to right) during King’s 1959 visit to Iowa City.

Indeed, at the time of Dr. King’s visit, a controversy unfolded in an Iowa City neighborhood over a motorist’s use of an alley to access the garage of a rental home. For at least 20 years, tenants renting the house had used the alley with no complaints from neighbors. In the fall of 1959, however, soon after an African-American family moved into the house, a nearby homeowner complained to the city, claiming that the alley was for the use of property owners only. The city relented, and the owner of the rental house was ordered to reorient the garage to open directly onto Muscatine Avenue.

The incident—and others—inspired a group of SUI students to form the Student Association for Racial Equality, or SARE, the following year. By 1964, SARE affiliated itself with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization that advocated for voter registration of African Americans in the South who had long been denied access to the ballot box.

Less than ten years later – on Tuesday, April 9, 1968 – mourners gathered for a memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. Read more here.

Two USPS stamps have been issued to honor Dr. King. The “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the subjects chosen for a 1999 commemorative stamp series honoring the most iconic events of the 1960’s. King’s speech was delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, in which he called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the United States. Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the speech was a defining moment of the civil rights movement and among the most iconic speeches in American history.

Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…

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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

King – Effort To End Subtle Barriers, Marcia Bolton, The Daily Iowan, November 12, 1959, p 1

Immoral For Negroes To Turn To Violence, Nancy Groendyke, The Daily Iowan, November 12, 1959, p 8

New South Described By Dr. King, Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 12, 1959, p 10

Says Integration Is National Problem, Iowa City Press Citizen, November 12, 1959, p 3

Words that echoed: 55 years after U of I speech, MLK’s message still resonating in Iowa, Josh O’Leary, The Des Moines Register, January 18, 2014

Old Gold: MLK’s campus lecture more than 50 years ago remains relevant, IowaNow, University of Iowa, October 12, 2016

From the archives: Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 visit to the UI, The Daily Iowan, January 22, 2019


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