On this 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and in the pre-Conference blogging lull, perhaps there is room in your day to remember Dr. King’s visit to Salt Lake City. (This was written for use in February 2007.)
Some 1,700 students and community members waited in the Union Ballroom of the University of Utah on Jan. 31, 1961. Eight o’clock came and went with no word from their featured speaker. He had not been on the scheduled plane from Denver; had he stayed home in Atlanta to care for his wife and the son who had been born only hours earlier? Still, the audience waited.
When he finally arrived, with a police escort to speed his way across the valley, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. apologized to the standing-room-only audience and explained that he had missed his Denver plane connection.
He had come to speak on the future of integration—”civil rights”was not yet a current term in Utah—and to encourage Utahns to participate in the movement. “We are standing on the threshold of the greatest period of racial development,” he said. “The most important force behind the struggle … is the non-violent resistence movement. It’s our most potent weapon.”
Graduate student Jennifer Harward, examining the civil rights movement in Utah for her master’s program at the University of Utah, notes that “the NAACP has been at the center of civil rights activism in Utah” since its organization in 1919. She reports that Albert B. Fritz, president of the Salt Lake branch from 1957 to 1965, had spearheaded protests involving musicians Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino in the 1950s, and would urge the passage of Utah legislation mirroring the national Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fritz was the guiding spirit behind a low-key, mostly symbolic, but significant episode in civil rights activities in Utah. On Saturday, Mar. 12, 1960, a dozen protesters, six black and six white, had picketed Kress’s and Woolworth’s department stores on Main Street north of Third South. Fritz monitored the demonstration to ensure that the pickets were “peaceful, cordial and do not block the entrances.”
While the protesters carried large placards denouncing the two national chains for maintaining segregated lunch counters in the South, Fritz emphasized that the NAACP had no complaint about the Salt Lake businesses. Both stores served blacks at their lunch counters. In fact, Carl L. Jones, manager of the Woolworth branch, “invited the pickets to come in for coffee when they got tired or cold.” The protesters passed out leaflets asking Utahns to write to the department stores’ national offices “to conduct their businesses in the South as they do in Salt Lake City.”
When King spoke to the 1961 assembly, he thanked those who had participated in the peaceful picketing a year earlier. Such local sympathy activities, he said, were “valuable aids in bringing pressure to bear on the chains involved,” occurring as they had “while sit-in activities were at a peak in the South.”
“The forces of integration will win in the South,” he said, while prejudice in the North was “more subtle and more difficult to get at. At least in the North we have broken down the legal barriers.” He called on religious groups to “gather more courage to resist segregation.”
His speech ended amidst a thunderous and standing ovation.
King posed for a few pictures—he appears as a younger, more relaxed man than we see in later images—and returned to the airport that evening. He had a speaking engagement in New York City the next day, followed by an unknown roster of other appointments before he could return to his family and get acquainted with his infant son.
Fritz continued his work with the NAACP and today is remembered by the annual presentation of the Albert B. Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award, presented most recently to Susan McFarland, a teacher at Willow Canyon Elementary School in the Jordan School District and an NAACP volunteer during legislative sessions and on other projects.
And Utah continued its slow and unfinished progress toward civil rights and full equality for all its citizens.