Dr. King's Chattanooga Connections

Saturday, August 24, 2013 - by John Shearer

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories in connection with the 50thanniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.)


On Aug.

28, 1963 – 50 years ago this Wednesday – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged 250,000 people around the Lincoln Memorial and millions more on television to “let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.”


It was a comment made toward the end of his now-famous speech – but after the “I have a dream” lines -- and was one of several references made to natural and geographic landmarks around the country.


Although some have speculated over the years that he chose the historically affluent Lookout Mountain community to highlight social differences that existed at the time, it was likely just an oratorical and rhythmic way of getting across his points.


What is for sure, however, is that nearly three years before Dr. King echoed the Lookout Mountain line to the nation and world, he said it to a crowd of a few thousand gathered at Memorial Auditorium.   


On the night of Dec. 30, 1960, Dr. King came to Chattanooga in what was apparently his only public appearance in the Scenic City during his years as a well-known civil rights leader. 


In a local program designed to observe the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, Dr. King attended a banquet at the Henry Branch YMCA, and then spoke to around 2,500-3,500 people at Memorial Auditorium.


While here, he discussed many of the topics that would encompass the famous 1963 speech. But in 1960, blacks were just starting to see full civil rights as lights at the end of the tunnel, while in 1963, they were nearing the end of the tunnel.


When Dr. King came to Chattanooga in 1960, it was a familiar place to him. Early in his ministerial career in the early 1950s, he had been seriously considered for the pastorate at the historically black church, First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street.


However, thinking he was too young, the church’s leaders selected the Rev. H.H. Battle, who went on to serve the church into the 1990s.


The mild-mannered Mr. Battle later recalled in an interview that Dr. King wanted the Chattanooga pastorate, but that being called as minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., a short time later worked out better for him. There, the lines of segregation were more evident than in Chattanooga, and he had more proverbial fruit to harvest.


Mr. Battle also lived with the King family while attending Morehouse College in his younger years. He recalled that Dr. King Sr. was somewhat assertive and strong willed, while Dr. King Jr.’s mother, Alberta, was meek, sweet and loved by everyone.


As a result, Dr. King Jr. no doubt inherited all those qualities, and each would aid him in the civil rights battles he fought.


But what helped him the most, however, was that he was blessed with a rare gift for inspiring through oratory.


And he apparently displayed that during his 1960 visit to Chattanooga.


After arriving at Chattanooga’s Lovell Field shortly after 2:30 that Fridayafternoon, he was the guest of honor at the 5:30 p.m. banquet at the gymnasium of the James A. Henry branch of the YMCA. It was the Y for the black residents and was located at 915 Park Ave., between Ninth and 10th streets.


Tickets were sold for $1.50 apiece to the first 200 people to arrive. While at the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance-sponsored dinner, he was introduced by the Rev. Dogan W. Williams, pastor at Wiley Memorial Methodist Church.


Dr. King told the group that he was “happy God gave him the privilege of living in this significant period of history,” according to the write-up in the Chattanooga Times by reporter Harry Young.


During his 55-minute talk at the auditorium, which was heavily guarded by police, the 31-year-old Dr. King told the mostly black audience that the time had come for the executive and legislative branches of government to aid in the fight to end racial oppression.


“We must remind (newly elected president John F.) Kennedy we helped him get into the White House, and that we expect him to use the full weight of his office to remove the burden of segregation from our shoulders,” he said.


Dr. King also urged the Chattanooga audience to make sure they would not settle for token integration, that they must make an effort to achieve the full right to vote, and that they must be willing to suffer and sacrifice, although they should practice non-violence.


The speaker also lashed out at the viewpoint popular at the time among some that the non-violent push in the United States for full civil rights was communist inspired.


“We have rejected the basic concepts of communism,” he said. “We just want to be free.”


He later summed up his speech by saying, “The idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and justice for all men.”


Mr. Young wrote that the civil rights leader’s speech held the crowd in almost silent attention.


It was in T. Grady Gallant’s report in the Chattanooga News-Free Press, however, where the reference to Lookout Mountain in Dr. King’s 1960 speech was found.


In the fourth paragraph, after quoting Dr. King saying that the basic aim of black people is to be their white man’s brother, not brother-in-law, Mr. Gallant simply quoted Dr. King as saying, “Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain.”


No details are given to explain what prompted the comment from the civil rights leader.


Mr. Gallant also said that Dr. King told the black Chattanoogans to “keep moving” and “to continue the struggle” for integration.


At the auditorium talk, Dr. King was introduced by the Rev. M.J. Jones of Stanley Methodist Church, after Mr. Williams had delivered the opening prayer.


Among those who also took part in the evening activities were the Rev. William A. Dennis of Orchard Knob Baptist Church, who spoke at the auditorium gathering; and local black physician Dr. Lonnie Boaz, who encouraged the crowd to contribute to the collection that was being taken up to support the civil rights causes.


Other participants included Dr. Horace J. Traylor; president of the all-black Zion College in Chattanooga and a representative of the sponsoring Council for Cooperative Action; and James Mapp, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, which also sponsored the event.


After his auditorium talk, a question-and-answer session for Dr. King was held back at the Henry Branch of the YMCA and was open to the first 300 people to arrive. Among those attending was Myles Horton, the white leader of the liberal Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, which provided civil rights training to blacks and whites.


After the second Y gathering, the magical and memorable night of inspiration for the civil rights cause ended. However, the movement toward full freedom for black Americans was just beginning.


And it would culminate on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C., in what would later be described as one of the most important mass rallies in American history.


Dr. King, of course, would be there, and so would a number of Chattanoogans.


(Note: As a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and because of the mention of Lookout Mountain in Dr. King’s famous speech, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is planning a special program Wednesday, Aug. 28, beginning at 2:30 p.m. at the New York Peace Monument at Point Park. Fourth graders from Orchard Knob Elementary will read portions of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, followed by a bell-ringing ceremony at 3. Admission is free).


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