BOSTON Many people associate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement with the policies of the deep South, but that battle was fought here in Boston too.
On Sept. 11, 1964, King came to Boston to announce the donation of his personal papers to his alma mater, Boston University. He spoke of racial injustice, even here in the North.
“This struggle, while we are based in the South, is a national struggle and it requires concern of people all over the nation,” King said. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. The problem is very serious in the North. Racial injustice does exist in the North in a very serious way.”
That message rings true to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
“Look, I grew up in the town of Brookline. Until the civil rights revolution, really in the 1960s, they couldn’t live in Brookline,” Dukakis said. “They couldn’t live on the northern side of the railroad tracks, they could work over there but they had to go home on the other side of the railroads.”
King, the iconic figure of that civil rights revolution, often referred to Boston as his second home. He had studied here in the 1950s, earning his doctorate at Boston University. Here in Boston King met New England Conservatory student Coretta Scott, who became his wife.
Another milestone came on April 22, 1965, when he addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature. There is no known recording of the speech, but at the end he repeated, almost verbatim, the closing words of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in Washington two years before.
“We will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.’ ”
On that April day in 1965, Dukakis was a young member of the Massachusetts House, representing Brookline.
“I don’t remember the details of the speech, maybe it’s a sign of advancing age, but I certainly remember that he spoke to us and that it was an extraordinary event for us,” Dukakis said. “He was a presence that’s hard to describe. He was just a very powerful presence and you felt that and sensed that.”
That was also the sentiment of another young state representative, William Bulger of South Boston, who would later become president of the Massachusetts Senate. While his recollections of the speech are vague, Bulger remembers it was well-received. In his words that was before “the local stuff crested” — a reference to the busing crisis that came nine years after King’s Boston speech.
A more vivid image of that day comes from a man who was a first-term state representative from Roxbury, The Rev. Michael Haynes. Haynes had served with King as a youth minster at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church and delivered the invocation before the Legislature just before King spoke.
“The place was packed. There wasn’t standing room in the hall. A lot of legislators brought their whole families,” Haynes said.
The day after that speech, King led what was described as Boston’s first giant freedom march. The Boston Globe described the event as a “mile of marchers.” They followed a two-and-a-half mile route from the South End to the Boston Common, where some 22,000 people gathered during light rain to hear King speak.
He echoed themes that were voiced the day before in his speech at the State House.
“He talked about the school situation. He talked about the cancer that was affecting the nation, that if it wasn’t dealt with the nation wouldn’t have moral health,” Haynes said. “That’s an underlying diagnosis of racism at its worst.”
The ’60s, a decade of revolution, progress and pain, brought the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts and decades of progress after. And finally, a holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader, schooled in Boston.
“I remember the first King holiday, the pride that I had. Here’s an American holiday for an America that embraces people of color,” Haynes said.
King’s Boston visit, 47 years ago this spring, still lives in the memories of those in the room that day. It was important to them. But Haynes said it was important to King, too. This man, who had moved a nation with his dream, had never spoken to a legislature before that day. Haynes says King changed minds that day.