When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited St. Louis for a speech in early 1957, did he imagine Americans would still be grappling with the legacies of segregation and economic disparity more than 60 years later?
As Americans prepare to commemorate King's birthday on Jan. 15, it is worth noting that the civil rights leader made St. Louis a regular stop for at least a decade.
King’s appearance at Kiel Auditorium on April 10, 1957, came at the invitation of the Citizens Committee of Greater St. Louis, a federation of several area ministerial groups.
"Then, my friends, we must face the fact that segregation is still a reality in America," he said. "We still confront it in the South in its glaring and conspicuous forms. We still confront it in the North, in the border states in its hidden and subtle forms."
It may have been his first major public speech in St. Louis, but Gwen Moore, of the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, said King visited the area as many as nine times between 1954 and 1964.
When he came to St. Louis in 1954, he was well-known among members of the black churches, but not yet recognized on the national stage.
“He spoke for National Baptist Women’s Auxiliary,” Moore said. “We get an early glimpse of what was to come later.”
April 10, 1957
When King took the stage at Kiel Auditorium, there were about 8,000 people in the audience. His appearance in St. Louis came on the heels of the successful year-long Montgomery bus boycott, which ended in December 1956.
“He was also here to promote what was going to be a gathering in Washington, D.C.,” Moore said. “That was a ‘March on Washington’ that they didn’t want to call a ‘March Washington.’ They didn’t want to give the impression that they were trying to put pressure on the executive branch.”
King would play a leading role at what became known as the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. On May 17, 1957, he gave his “Give Us The Ballot” speech, advocating voting rights for African-Americans. (President Lyndon B. Johnson would later sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965).
Dec. 4, 1957
King made a second visit to St. Louis, this time at the invitation of the National Council of Churches for their convention.
At Kiel Auditorium King urged the gathering of about 2,000 ministers to do more to desegregate churches, even chiding them for dragging their feet on progress.
“All too many ministers are still silent while evil rages,” King said. “It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is the appalling silence of the so-called good people.”
King drew on the Montgomery Bus Boycott in his remarks, striking a note of optimism.
“I still have faith in the South. I still have faith in Montgomery, Alabama," he told his audience. "I do not speak as any superficial optimist at this point; I’m not sitting back in some ivory tower with a rosy-eyed vision. I speak as one who has stood in the thick of this struggle. I speak as one who has subjected his family to dangerous living. I speak of one who has to live every day under the threat of death. But in the midst of that, I come to you not with a message of despair, but a message of hope.”
May 28, 1963
King also came to St. Louis in 1963 when he was invited by former classmate Earl Nance Sr. of Greater Mount Carmel Church. On that occasion, King spoke at Washington Tabernacle Church.
“Of course it was standing room only, overflow crowd,” Moore said.
King’s visit was part of his nationwide tour leading up to March on Washington when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28.
Oct. 12, 1964
By the time King made this visit to St. Louis, he was what Moore describes as a “monumental” figure in American life.
The March on Washington would have been fresh on the minds of the capacity crowd in West Pine Gym at Saint Louis University. It was two days before he would win the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Invited by SLU student government as part of its Student Conclave Issues Series, King addressed nearly 3,900 students, faculty, staff and community members.
King: Human rights activist
On the anniversary of King's birth, Moore said people should remember the man as a fighter for racial equality and an advocate for the poor.
"He promoted not just racial justice, but economic justice," she said.
Select Martin Luther King Day events
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day Holiday Celebration in St. Louis. Call 314-458-6906 for details
- MLK Day of Service in St. Louis
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at Southern Mission Baptist Church. Call 314-521-3951 for details
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance at The Touhill Performing Arts Center
- Reclaim MLK Day March, St. Louis. Call 314-309-1921 for details
Follow Holly Edgell @HollyEdgell