Dean Dorn, a young professor at then-Sacramento State College, was nervous enough to be sent to the old Sacramento Airport to pick up civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. for a campus speaking engagement.
It was Oct. 16, 1967, less than six months before King’s assassination.
“I had a state car, bland in color and, of course, somewhat older,” Dorn recalls. “Arriving at the airport, I discovered that he did not arrive on his scheduled flight from San Francisco. Panic!”
More than 6,000 people were waiting for King at Campus Stadium (now Hornet Stadium) eight miles away on the Sac State campus. Dorn was relieved when King stepped off the next plane from San Francisco.
“He was shorter, smaller than I expected,” Dorn says. “In the car, he sat in the front seat. He had the opportunity to see a bit of Sacramento on the way. I told him I taught courses in race and ethnicity. I told him there was some activism on the campus over the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam War. That changed the conversation to what he called ‘the struggle.’ ”
On Monday, Oct. 16, Sacramento State will celebrate the 50th anniversary of King’s 1967 visit – the only time he spoke at a California State University (CSU) campus – with a march to Hornet Stadium and dedication of a dogwood tree, two keynote addresses by talk-show host Tavis Smiley, discussion moderated by King scholar Clayborne Carson, a gospel concert, and an exhibit of archival material. The day’s theme is “Empathy, Equality, and Esteem.” (See the schedule below.)
“The ‘MLK 50th Anniversary’ provides a unique opportunity to celebrate what makes Sacramento State great, our commitment to building campus unity," says Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, planning committee co-chair. "And it gives us the opportunity to advocate for civil and human rights at a time when they’re needed the most.”
At the time King came to Sacramento, he was speaking at college campuses across the country and planning the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, a march on Washington to demand better jobs, homes, and education for all low-income Americans. Six months earlier, he had been widely criticized for voicing his opposition to the Vietnam War.
“I think it was a difficult time for him,” says Dorn, now 80 and an emeritus professor of sociology. Dorn was 30 when he drove King, who was then 38.
“As I recall,” Dorn says, “the conversation (in the car) was something like this, and I’m paraphrasing him: ‘The road to social justice, economic justice, and human rights is long and never-ending, full of potholes, diversions, missed turns, and barriers. But we have to keep up our hope, our struggle, and our determination to continue even when we may never reach our destination.’ And, of course, I agreed.”
Dorn delivered King and his two traveling companions to Campus Stadium, where King shook his hand and ascended the stage. Dorn remembers the crowd’s warm reception, despite the late arrival.
State Sen. Mervyn M. Dymally introduced King, calling him “a man of rare courage, a man of strong convictions, a man who has provided leadership for all Americans, black and white.”
During his 35-minute address, King talked about the millions of African Americans who were unemployed, experiencing inequality in education, and living in terrible housing conditions. He mentioned that 58 black churches in Mississippi had been torched over the previous 18 months.
“He made the point that he was part of a larger movement against injustice, poverty, and the war in Vietnam, and he invited the audience to join him,” Dorn remembers. “The audience was very attentive. He spoke with no notes, because he had given this speech in different versions many times, so it kind of rolled off of him. He got a lot of applause.”
King was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers and studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He earned his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Joseph A. Palermo, a Sacramento State professor of history, teaches courses on the 1960s and the civil rights movement and authored two books on Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated two months after King was shot and killed by a sniper, April 4, 1968.
“During the last six months of Robert Kennedy’s life and the last six months of Martin Luther King’s life, they were moving on a parallel track,” Palermo says. “They both wanted to end the Vietnam War. They both wanted to spend far more money on anti-poverty programs and job programs. They were trying to put pressure on the administration in an election year.”
Americans black and white “accepted King as a man of peace and love,” Palermo says. “That’s what made his assassination so shocking. We don’t know what would have happened had he lived, but we do know that his removal at that moment sent the civil rights movement - a movement for social justice in this country - spinning off into a million pieces.”
A half-century after King came to campus, his visit is remembered as a significant moment in the history of Sacramento State, which was just 20 years old at the time and five years from becoming a full-fledged university.
“The ‘MLK 50th Anniversary’ celebration is a historical milestone that commemorates not only Dr. King's speech on campus but his vision for greater equality and justice for all,” Watson-Derbigny says. “For these reasons, we celebrate as a reminder to live out his dream daily by educating students for leadership, success, and service, and working to build vibrant communities that embody diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
"The significance of Dr. King's visit to Sacramento State is that it coincided with a shift in the political climate in the nation and a resultant change in the focus of the movement," says Robin Carter, MLK celebration co-chair. "He spent the last year of his life articulating a shift from civil rights to human rights. His speech on our campus highlighted his advocacy for this shift." - Dixie Reid
MLK 50th Anniversary Celebration at Sac State, Monday, Oct. 16
Everything, other than the fundraiser brunch, is free and open to the public. Tickets are required for both the 4:15 p.m. gospel concert and 7:30 p.m. keynote address. To RSVP for events you wish to attend and to download free tickets, go to Sac State's MLK celebration page.
- 9:30 to 10:45 a.m., University Union, Redwood Room – Brunch to benefit student scholarships features motivational speaker Inky Johnson. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased online.
- 11 to 11:50 a.m. University Union, Hinde Auditorium – The March (1964), 33-minute documentary about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King spoke. Roberto Pomo, professor of theater, will introduce Richard Blue, brother of the late filmmaker, James Blue.
- Noon to 12:45 p.m., University Union Ballroom – Keynote speaker Tavis Smiley discusses “Empathy and Economic Inequality.” The PBS talk-show host is the author of Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Final Year (no ticket required).
- 12:45 p.m., University Union – Unity march to Hornet Stadium.
- 1:10 p.m., Broad Field House lawn – Dedication of the Tree of Empathy commemorating King’s 1967 visit.
- 2:15 to 3 p.m., University Union, Redwood Room – “The Civil Rights Movement,” panel discussion featuring Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. The moderator is J. Luke Wood, a professor at San Diego State and a Sac State alumnus.
- 3:15 to 4 p.m., University Union, various locations – Student workshops.
- 4:15 to 5 p.m., University Union, Lobby Suite – Student docents lead tours of the exhibit “Fifty Years Ago Today at Sacramento State: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.” The exhibit is open for self-tours from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- 4:15 to 5 p.m. University Union Ballroom – “Empathy, Empowerment, and Praise,” gospel concert featuring the MLK Community Choir and JJ Hairston. Ticketed event. RSVP required.
- 7:30 p.m., University Union Ballroom – Smiley delivers the keynote address, “The Death of a King: A Life of Empathy that Created a Movement.” Ticketed event. RSVP required.
For more information, go to Sac State’s MLK celebration page.
Sacramento State is home to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which opened in November 2015, and MLK Scholars Program.