Denver played small part in Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights journey

The actions that created Martin Luther King Jr.’s indelible legacy are well-noted. Whether it is his impactful bus protests in Montgomery, AL, in 1955 or his world-renown “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, his speeches, visits, and protests remain as impactful today as they were decades ago. It speaks to the challenges society still faces to this day. One part of his journey that isn’t as discussed as often is his visits to Denver, Colo.

They aren’t heralded as much outside the Mile High City, but the impact of his visits still resonates in Denver to this day. The city also played a formative role for the civil rights activist. King is documented as having visited four times, including trips in 1956, 1962, 1964, and 1967, less than a year from his tragic death in 1968. Here is a look back at some of the visits and the role they played in forever changing the landscape of Denver.

1956: The first known visit from King Jr. came in 1956 as the minister came to preach at Denver’s New Hope Baptist Church in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Protests. It was in that church he heard what would reportedly become his favorite hymn, ‘If I Can Help Somebody.’ He also learned of the struggles African-Americans faced in Denver at the time. The local community wanted King Jr. to see that segregation wasn’t limited just to the South. At the time, blacks were not allowed to live north of High St.

1962: Six years after his first visit, King Jr. spoke at the First Baptist Church on April 16. The church has a plaque in memory of his appearance nearly almost 60 years ago. Just over a year later, King Jr. would deliver the speech he is most known for, “Have A Dream,” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

1964: With King now at his apex, what might’ve been his most impactful visit to Denver came on January 24, 1964. Fresh off being named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” the activist visited Denver University for the first time and spoke to an estimated crowd of 600. During that speech, he emphasized to, "think of the world as a brotherhood.” He also said people have the "responsibility to end the notion once and for all that there are superior and inferior races." 

King also spoke at Montview Presbyterian. In honor of that visit, Park Hill Elementary does a kids’ “marade” where they walk together and place pieces of art in memory of King and place them along the walk to the church. This year’s edition was postponed due to COVID-19, but it’s a tradition that has been done for decades.

Lastly, King surprised families in Littleton by taking the time to speak with them at Grace Presbyterian Church. The visit is commemorated at Littleton History Museum and is celebrated annually with breakfast at Arapahoe Community College every Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

1967: Three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, in no small part due to the efforts of King and his peaceful protests, he would return to Denver University.

Giving a speech at DU Fieldhouse, King Jr. touched on the challenges of integration.

“Most people see integration in romantic and aesthetic terms, but true integration means shared power,” King Jr. said. “I’m in the heart-changing business, but if morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.” 

Discussing racists specifically, he added, “The law can’t make him love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me.”

“We still have a long way to go.

King also discussed his opposition to the Vietnam war, which was met by a few boos from the 2,000 in attendance.

The youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize at that time, King was met with opposition outside of DU. At an old fraternity row, a burning cross was put on top of an abandoned car. The police at the time described the incident as “it was nothing more than spring fever.'” 

Less than a year later, King Jr. would be assassinated for his beliefs in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, 1968

More than five decades later, society is still fighting for the equality that King spoke of. In 2002, a memorial statue of King Jr. was erected in Denver’s City Park. It remains there along with quotes from civil rights leaders and tributes to fellow activists Gandhi, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass.