Dr. Martin Luther King in Fort Wayne, 1963

Dateline: Mon 21 Jan 2008

Dr. King was famous by 1963 in the North as well as the South. His visit to Fort Wayne, Indiana, on June 5, 1963, to preach at a black church, was a big deal -- or so the newspapers seemed to indicate. How else would I have known, if not for the Journal Gazette and the News Sentinel? Dr. King was not exactly then a subject studied or a person quoted in classes at Concordia Lutheran High School, where I was a 16-year-old junior eager for life.

For many whites, sadly, King's visit seemed to signal fearfulness. What would happen when the famed minister and civil rights crusader spoke? Would there be unrest? Would there be agitators in the crowd? Would it be dangerous?

Or would his message be received as a sign of hopefulness, a shared belief in the birth of a new, equal society that was undergoing the pain of hard labor?

Most of us had no idea. But no doubt, many were curious, including young idealistic whites who felt strongly that Dr. King was that rare thing, a national hero.

In the past, when a prominent person came to the city, I'd done all in my power to be there. When Jimmy Hoffa visited, my friend Judy Ohnesorge -- who had written a senior essay about Hoffa's union movement -- drove with me to the Coliseum to hear him talk, eat dinner with the Teamsters and listen to their rousing anthem. When the John Birch Society's Robert Welch spoke Downtown, I went to that meeting alone -- and marveled that some in attendance dozed off.

Dr. King's appearance was considered more controversial, maybe even unseemly, for some whites. Judy Ohnesorge's father put his foot down: absolutely not, his daughter could not go. In his opinion, a black church was not a suitable place for two young Lutheran girls. Not even if they went to a school whose name meant "harmony."

It was a warm, beautiful June day, and I wore a muted madras shirtwaist dress, nylon stockings, black Capezio flats. Madras was the fad then, and it was ideal for the impression I wanted to make: sophisticated, (if you can believe it) and not fussy. New York Sylvia Plath in Fort Wayne. Or Chicago, at least. I drove my mother's old, used 1957 penny-colored Buick, a onetime luxury car with a Wonder Bar on the radio. The car was so decadent that one of my boyfriends had referred it as "a plush old whore" when he used it to smoke cigarettes during breaks. For a Lutheran, he too was bold.

I found a place to park near the church, which was near Downtown. Carrying a notebook, or so I hope, I went in. I sat on the second floor in the darkened balcony. By myself, at the end of a pew.

Jubilation was in the air. It was unlike any other religious event I had ever attended -- Jewish services or Catholic mass being my narrow areas of experience in addition to Lutheran rituals. There was much fanfare. Many black men in suits appeared on the stage. Ushers in white gloves passed the collection basket. The singing was rich and plentiful. It was a long time before Dr. King was introduced, but when he came out, it was to booming applause.

I have no idea what he said. I recall that, despite my bravado, I was aware of being a stranger in a strange land. At the same time, I was perfectly at home -- comfortable as an outsider, enchanted by witnessing such a dynamic and unusual event. In my element.

There was no trouble that day. Dr. King spoke and he was well-received; people spoke with him, answered him "Amen'd" him. Then it was over. Life went on. I drove the plush old whore home, and told Judy about it on the phone. She's probably still angry she didn't defy her father and sneak out.

From what I understand, after looking on Google today, there was no immediate coverage by the local press at the time. However, stories eventually were written in the News Sentinel about King's appearance; they did not run until January, and I am mightily curious about that. I know those articles are available through the Fort Wayne libraries, and I hope to access them someday. I'd like to read about what the man said in Fort Wayne in 1963

But I know it was good.


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