Hundreds are expected to fill the Grosse Pointe South High School gymnasium on Wednesday to commemorate the day fifty years ago that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to the school to deliver one of his final speeches, just three weeks before he was assassinated.
“We want to fill the gym,” said Rebecca Fannon, spokeswoman for the Grosse Pointe Public School System. “It was filled to capacity when he was here. His message was so important. I want the next generation to hear it as well.”
King delivered the speech “The Other America” on the evening of March 14, 1968, by invitation of the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council. He discussed the nation’s race problem and said there needed to be an honest confrontation with it.
It was a tense evening, said Isabelle Donnelly, director of education and collections manager for the Grosse Pointe Historical Society. To protect King, the Grosse Pointe Farms police chief even sat on the civil rights leader’s lap as he approached the school in a car. Once inside the gymnasium, King found overwhelming support but some hecklers too.
King was interrupted 32 times by ovations.
“That’s important to me because we hear so much about the race problem and people hating him,” Donnelly said. “There were 2,700 people there supporting them. It’s important to get both sides of the story.”
In honor of the historical event, the school district’s program will feature a live reading of King’s speech. Student artwork, writing, original music and videos will be displayed in South’s Wicking Library beginning at 6 p.m.
To help provide some context, the district recorded video interviews of individuals who attended King’s speech and those who tried to attend.
“I hope folks walk out of the South gym after spending an evening coming together and listening to Dr. King and really understand that if we really work with and among one another, anything is possible,” said Maureen Bur, the district’s director of secondary instruction.
Experts have said that King’s speech, like many others he gave between 1967 and his death on April 4, 1968, examined poverty, racism and militarism. It was the second phase of the civil rights movement that focused on the “realization of equality.”
“I think ‘The Other America’ presents a Dr. King who had a more nuanced interpretation on where we stood as a nation in ’68,” said Brenda Tindal, director of education for the Detroit Historical Society. She will offer closing remarks during the program Wednesday.
“He’s not simply looking at race,” Tindal continued. “He’s also looking at poverty, he’s looking at war. We see a King reflect on the multiple ways in which people have been grappling with multiple issues.”
Grosse Pointe South High School is at 11 Grosse Pointe Blvd. in Grosse Pointe Farm.
General public tickets are $2 at the door and online at gpschools.org. Tickets are also available at every district secondary school. Student pricing is $1, as it was in 1968.