Glow from Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Portland 40 years ago still palpable
Before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, he visited dozens of cities across the country Ñ including Portland.
On Monday, many Portlanders will remember the civil rights leader's message of equality for all races with Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches, prayer vigils and elaborate stage performances.
But a handful will recall more personal encounters with the Baptist minister who spoke at the Urban League of Portland's Equal Opportunity Day program before 3,500 people at downtown's Civic Auditorium on Nov. 8, 1961.
King was 32 years old at the time, and although he was only in town for a day, he also spoke at Portland State College and Lewis & Clark College. He held a news conference at the Multnomah Hotel. And after his appearance at the auditorium Ñ admission was $1.50 Ñ he attended a dinner and two small, private gatherings.
'For me and for the league, it was a milestone,' said Myrtle Carr, who worked for the urban league at the time of King's visit. 'The expectation was that his presence would help bring about harmony and better conditions for people here.'
The brief visit 40 years ago inspired a generation of local civil rights leaders who consider their experience with King an important part of their lives to this day.
On that day 40 years ago, Carr was sitting in the league's conference room when King walked in the door.
She was an office manager for the organization, then based in the Dekum Building on Southwest Third Avenue.
Carr, now 78, remembers the next few minutes vividly:
'He came in and sat next to me and started talking. The serenity that embraced me is something I will always cherish. We talked one on one. We talked about Portland. But he more or less dwelled on the subject of children and the future and what should be done as far as helping them to grow and have a better world.
'It was early in the day. He asked me if I had children. I had a daughter, and he touched on that. He brought his kids into the conversation. All the while I was thinking, 'What a wonderful experience this is.' '
Later, Carr listened to him speak downtown at Civic Auditorium. King's message of making the world a better place, both in his speech and in their private conversation, stuck with her. She worked at the league for 10 years and later ran the Labor Education Advancement Program for 35 years.
'It is a chapter in my life that I will never forget,' she said. 'I never felt like that about somebody's presence. Every time his birthday occurs, I think about it.'
A well-timed visit
Bobbie Nunn had a third-row seat in the auditorium for King's speech, 'Facing the Challenge of New Age.'
Nunn, who was involved in the civil rights movement long before the visit, had seen King at previous events in her travels.
The auditorium was packed. People were sitting in the aisles. Then-Gov. Mark O. Hatfield and Mayor Terry D. Schrunk were on hand to introduce him.
'There was a lot of excitement,' said Nunn, 77. 'I don't think anyone had come to Portland as an orator that impressed people to that degree.'
Nunn had had a hard time finding a job when she first moved to Portland, despite having two years of college under her belt. And even though the city had its own history of racism, she found that civil rights activism wasn't as strong here as it was in other parts of the country.
When King visited Portland, she said: 'It was a good time to come. People here have always been apathetic when it came to racial discrimination. Nonviolence was a new theory at the time.
'Discrimination wasn't new to me. I wasn't naive. He affirmed the thoughts and ambitions that I felt that people should have in this part of the country.'
Later, Nunn completed her education and went on to work as a first-grade teacher and direct the Career Opportunities Program to recruit and train minority teachers. She also helped bring a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention to Portland in 1978.
Guided by the Lord
The Rev. Eugene Boyd served as pastor at Providence Baptist Church for 35 years.
In that time, he delivered and listened to hundreds of sermons. Like most ministers, he quickly learned how to distinguish between those who were genuine and those who were out for their own interests.
'If you're not sincere and don't have a good message, they know it right away,' said Boyd, 76. 'King was sincere. Anyone could tell that the Lord had his hands on him, leading him and guiding him.'
Boyd took his son to listen to King speak at the auditorium. Later, Boyd was invited by the Rev. O.B. Williams of Vancouver First Avenue Baptist Church to attend a small gathering of about 10 ministers at the parsonage.
The ministers introduced themselves, took their seats and at some point in the two-hour meeting, were led in prayer by one of the Portland preachers.
Of King, he said:
'He was a very quiet person. He didn't speak to us like he spoke on the trail. It was a normal get-together where we discussed civil rights. He gave us advice on what to do. I was sitting right in front of him.'
King inspired Boyd, who already had founded the Albina Ministerial Alliance, to continue the work he already had started.
The alliance, an interracial ecumenical group of church leaders, pushed for hiring black clerks in local supermarkets in the 1960s. It also played a pivotal role in developing Albina Head Start, Self Enhancement Inc. and other social service organizations.
'Meeting him was like we were united for the first time as pastors fighting the situation,' Boyd said. 'We wanted to show him our support, to help him keep going.'
Like a father
After King met with the ministers, he went to another small gathering at the home of E. Shelton Hill, then the executive director of the urban league.
King had asked Hill to invite a dozen people who had moved to Portland from states in the South.
Willie Mae Hart, 80, who was originally from Mississippi, attended the meeting. She remembers King as down to earth, sincere and single-minded about his position on nonviolence.
King was recruiting people to march in their home states, but he emphasized that they couldn't respond to any kind of verbal or physical attack.
Hart remembers the exchange that followed:
'I said, 'Are you serious about that? Because if anybody hits me I'm going to hit them back.' He looked at me, and his demeanor changed. He was stern, like a father talking to a daughter. He said, 'You can't go.'
'My feelings were hurt. I didn't say a word, but he could see my expression. He said, 'There's one thing you can do. Give something to get someone somewhere out of jail in your state of Mississippi.' I said, 'I'll go one step further. I'll give a party and raise money to get people out of jail.' '
Hart's social group, the Golden Falcons, raised $1,000 throwing a Freedom Ball for jailed blacks in Mississippi.
'Meeting him taught me that you need to be thoughtful of what you do Ñ it taught me tolerance in a sense,' she said. 'I left feeling like you could make things right and change the world, and I wasn't with him for more than two hours.'