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When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Madison

The civil rights leader visited Madison twice in his life.

Martin Luther King during the March on Washington.jpg

Martin Luther King Jr. visited UW-Madison twice to give lectures on Civil Rights. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

March 30, 1962. It was a cold day, 37 degrees, but Madisonians were warmed with the world’s goings-on. “Hey! Baby” was on the radio, Jack Paar’s last day on “The Tonight Show” was the night before, “Bonanza” was on TV, and local sports fans were still marveling over Wilt Chamberlain’s recent 100-point game against the Knicks.

Martin Luther King Jr., a 33-year-old preacher from Atlanta, spoke to a capacity crowd at Madison’s Union Theater. It was his first visit to Madison, and he gave a speech entitled “The Future of Integration.”

“Segregation is on its deathbed,” the young civil rights activist said, “and the only problem is how expensive the nation will make its funeral.”

The visit was a long time coming. King was originally invited to the UW-Madison campus in 1961. It didn’t come to fruition; waylaid because he was arrested for protesting segregation in Georgia. So, he came in 1962 as part of a lecture series put on by the Union Forum Committee.

He took note, in his speech, of the progress being made in civil rights: President Kennedy’s actions, a reduction in segregated schools, a near-total elimination of lynching. “But,” he said, “we still have a long, long way to go.”

A year and a half later, Martin Luther King Jr. would give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

MLK Statue at Morehouse College, Atlanta.jpeg

Martin Luther King, Jr. last spoke in Madison on November 23, 1965. | Photo by 608today

He would return to Madison, and the college campus, in 1965. The newly-awarded Nobel Peace Prize winner took to the stage of the Stock Pavilion. The crowd, some 2,500-plus, was enthusiastic to hear King’s speech.

“We find ourselves standing on the threshold of the most creative period in the development of race relations in the history of our nation,” King said. “We have moved through the wilderness of ‘separate but equal,’ and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration.”

The speech discussed the importance of nonviolent protests, the problems still facing the Civil Rights Movement, and hope for humanity. “A piece of freedom is not enough for us as human beings,” he said. “A piece of liberty no longer suffices. Freedom is like life. Freedom is one thing. It is indivisible. You have it all or you are not free.”

Today, there are events celebrating and honoring the work of Dr. King:

Madison & Dane County MLK Day Observance, Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St.
The program includes special guest Terrence Roberts, who made history as one of the “Little Rock Nine.” There will be a freedom song sing-along at 5:00 p.m. with the program beginning at 6:00 p.m.

MLK Youth Call to Service, Madison Central Library, 201 W. Mifflin St.
The King Coalition, in partnership with several local organizations, invites middle school youth to attend the MLK Day Youth Call of Service from noon to 5 p.m. The day includes workshops and more.

State of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony
Wisconsin Public Radio will celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a live broadcast from the Capitol Rotunda at noon. The event is free and open to the public, or you can tune in to and WPR stations throughout the state to hear the broadcast.