Published November 10, 2017
Martin Luther King Jr. was nothing like Ruth Bryant imagined.
After reading his speeches and watching him on television, Bryant imagined the famed civil rights leader as a tall man with a booming voice. Instead, when she attended King’s 1967 speech in Buffalo at Kleinhans Music Hall, she discovered he was small in stature.
But his presence was electric. Hearing King speak made her hair tingle, she recalled during MLK@Buffalo, a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of King’s speech in Buffalo at the invitation of UB students.
“I thought, I’m going to go see Dr. King. This is a great person that I need to make contact with. Not to shake his hand, but to be in the presence of this person,” said Bryant, retired assistant dean of the School of Architecture and Planning.
She credits the words she heard that day with inspiring her to lead a career of service to the community and move others toward action as a member of UB’s Professional Staff Senate and other organizations at UB and in the community.
“I decided I’m going to be engaged in making a difference,” said Bryant. “Singly, you cannot make a difference. But you get people who believe in your values and what you’re trying to do, and you can move a mountain.”
Bryant was not alone in finding inspiration from King’s words. She and four other speakers from the UB and greater Buffalo community were invited by the university to attend MLK@Buffalo and reflect on passages from King’s speech delivered decades ago.
The event, held Nov. 9 in the Student Union on the North Campus, was sponsored by the UB Office of Inclusive Excellence, UB Libraries and the UB Intercultural and Diversity Center. Teresa Miller, professor of law and vice provost for inclusive excellence, and Austin Booth, vice provost for university libraries, served as hosts.
The program opened with a performance by the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts Vocal Symphony.
King delivered his address, titled “The Future of Integration,” on Nov. 9, 1967; it would be his final speech in Buffalo. During the visit, which was sponsored by the UB Student and Graduate Student associations, the renowned civil rights activist touched on both the Vietnam War and poverty.
He accepted the call to speak after years of invitations from persistent UB students. He had been kind with his rejections, though, writing in a 1964 letter, “please note that I deeply regret my inability to serve you.”
Scott Hollander, associate director of the UB Libraries, found that note to be the “most beautiful no” that he has ever read.
After finally accepting the invitation to Buffalo, King’s arrangements, logistics and payments were organized by UB students. Originally scheduled to take place in the Norton Union on the South Campus, King’s speech was moved to Kleinhans Music Hall due to overwhelming demand.
Fifty years later, the words he delivered that day continue to impact both UB and Buffalo.
“King’s dream for our society aligns with our aspirations as a diverse and inclusive university to create more opportunity and have that opportunity available across a wide range of differences,” said Miller.
During their remarks, Devonya Havis, associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Canisius College, and George Nicholas, senior pastor at Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, both addressed King’s warning to not fall prey to a superficial reality and dangerous optimism.
“One of the illusions that we have is that we’re better off than we were in 1967,” says Havis.
Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the election of African-Americans to public office, the economic, educational and health disparities between Caucasians and African-Americans have widened, Nicholas said.
And Buffalo remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities with one of the highest poverty rates, Havis added.
Near the time of his death, King was also largely unpopular, viewed as an agitator by whites and not radical enough by blacks, explained Victoria Wolcott, professor and chair of the Department of History.
From the NAACP to W. E. B. Du Bois, many leaders and organizations dedicated to civil rights viewed non-violent protests as ineffective. King also was opposed for his outspokenness on the Vietnam War and his sympathies toward the Black Power Movement, Wolcott said.
However, King refused to allow outside influence to sway him toward decisions that he believed were wrong, explained Leslie Veloz, president of the undergraduate Student Association.
“Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,” said King in 1967. “…There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
“If he were here today,” Wolcott said, “I believe he would remind you to never adjust yourself and to always embrace your own unpopularity.”
A collection of photos and audio of the speech reside in the University Libraries for study. The images are available for viewing in the Libraries Digital Collections.