ASU's tie to MLK

Monday marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a time to reflect on the struggles for equality and freedom in America. It's also a day to recall our various connections to the holiday's namesake.

For Arizona State University, the major tie to King is a speech he delivered on campus June 3, 1964 — less than one month before the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed. 

Titled “Religious Witness for Human Dignity” (listen to the speech here), King delivered the address to an audience of 8,000 people at ASU’s Goodwin Stadium. In it King stumps for civil-rights legislation and reminds people that racism doesn't just exist in the South; it spreads everywhere.

That engagement is one of King's lesser-documented public appearances. And until a recording of the event was discovered in 2013 most people had no idea it ever happened. In 2014, ASU Archivist Rob Spindler told ASU Now, "This discovery is highly significant for Arizona and the nation. The major online Martin Luther King archives at the King Center and Stanford University don't mention this address, nor do they mention that King ever gave orations in Arizona.

The recording was among a box of reel-to-reel tapes donated to charity by late Phoenix businessman and civil-rights leader Lincoln Ragsdale, an ASU alum, and discovered by Phoenix resident Mary Scanlon while shopping at a Valley Goodwill store.

After the discovery, a committee of ASU archivists, historians and scholars worked to verify the recording’s authenticity. It's legit. And it's worth listening to for a perspective of history, and as a touchstone to one of America's most revered civil-rights leaders.

Man at a podium

Lincoln Ragsdale at the podium in Goodwin Stadium on the ASU campus in 1964. Martin Luther King Jr. sits behind him, to the right. Photos courtesy of ASU Libraries Arizona Collection

 

What we know now is that King (pictured at the top of this story with Ralph Abernathy to the left and ASU President G. Homer Durham to the right), was invited to Arizona by the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP to deliver his speech at ASU’s Goodwin Stadium. Durham introduced King and praised him for putting the Sermon on the Mount into practice.

Durham, who came to ASU from Utah, was a well-known member of the LDS Church.

It's a worthy note because King's invitation to ASU was endorsed by a spectrum of faiths. A newspaper advertisement in the Arizona Republic in June 1964 invites “All Faiths” to “Join Together in a Religious Witness for Human Dignity in True American Tradition.” In addition to the NAACP, sponsors of the event included St. Agnes Parish, Central Methodist Church, Temple Beth Israel, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, First Institutional Baptist Church and the Phoenix Council of Churches.

In an ASU Now story from January 2014, Keith Miller, an ASU professor of English and national authority on King’s speeches, explained why King's ASU speech was so notable.

“King gave it less than a month before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Johnson after its backers had defeated a long Senate filibuster,” Miller said. “Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a powerful politician, was opposed to and subsequently voted against the legislation. ASU President Durham showed courage by welcoming King to ASU, despite the popularity of Goldwater, who received the GOP presidential nomination later that summer.”

Miller said Durham’s welcoming of King was also bold for another reason. The LDS Church did not fully recognize racial equality until 1978.

“Durham was a racial liberal who went out on a limb. He also hired African-American professors at ASU,” Miller said.

Others have said this speech, and Durham's willingness to bring King to ASU, is proof and a reminder that Arizona does have a history of supporting King and his mission of ensuring equality for all races. 

ASU's other notable tie to the holiday is its annual tribute to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That was the event that featured King's historic "I have a Dream" speech. Each year the West campus involves local sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students to reenact the march while ASU faculty member Charles St. Clair reenacts the speech. The event is free and begins at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20.