On 50th anniversary of King's speech, a community reflects on race - The Buffalo News

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On 50th anniversary of King's speech, a community reflects on race

On the afternoon of Nov. 9, 1967, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Buffalo-bound plane sat on the tarmac at the Atlanta Municipal Airport, the pilot's voice crackled over the intercom with ominous news.

The plane, as King recounted in a speech later that evening in Kleinhans Music Hall, had been the subject of a bomb threat.

It was the latest of dozens of threats King and his entourage had received, but the frequency and intensity was increasing. Though the bomb threat delayed his appearance, King did not appear fazed when he arrived to deliver his speech, titled "The Future of Integration," to an audience eager for inspiration and change.

Despite a boycott by Western New York's Baptist preachers stemming from King's stance on the Vietnam War, more than 2,000 people filed into Kleinhans that night to hear him speak on the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement and the difficult road ahead.

"In his presence, I felt almost as if I was listening to an apostle of Christ," said James Heck, 86, a former Buffalo Public Schools official who attended King's speech that night. "He seemingly had no fear. He was very resolute in what he had to say. And he was sincere."

On Thursday, 50 years after King's speech, a sold-out crowd of 2,400 people will file into Kleinhans once again to hear the words of a fearless writer whose work considers the enduring effects of racial injustice in America.

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Toni Morrison, author of 11 novels and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, will make a rare public appearance capping off weeks of community events linking King's speech to Morrison's visit.

Toni Morrison, pictured at an event on Broadway in June 2016, will make a rare public appearance in Buffalo this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at Kleinhans Music Hall. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images)

Morrison's visit is part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center's "Babel" reading series, which was preceded by a community-wide effort to foster conversations about King's legacy and Morrison's work dubbed "The Civil Writes Project."

Just Buffalo Artistic Director Barbara Cole said she was determined to find an author worthy of marking the 50th anniversary of King's speech. She persuaded Morrison with a series of letters explaining the importance of the date and of King's message in 21st century Buffalo and leaning on Morrison's connection to the Buffalo-born poet Lucille Clifton.

"It would be a wonderful thing if we could talk about this problem as a problem that is now solved," King said in his speech. "It's a fact that we've come a long, long way, but it isn't the whole truth. And I'm afraid if I stop here, I will leave you the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality and you may go away tonight the victims of a dangerous optimism."

The idea of dangerous optimism weighed heavily on Cole as she planned Morrison's appearance.

"Buffalo is at an amazing turning point because there's so much attention to what a renaissance we're having, yet we remain one of the most segregated cities in the country," she said. "One of the things that's so chilling about Dr. King's speech, to read it now, is that it reads as though it could be written today."

Buffalo frequently appears on lists of America's most segregated cities. According to census data compiled by MSN.com, it is one of only four American cities where 80 percent or more of white residents live in predominately white neighborhoods.

Teaching moments

As part of the "Civil Writes Project," which included lectures, community readings and theater and musical performances, Buffalo Public Schools administrator Michele Agosto recruited 30 Buffalo art teachers to participate in the project. Their students created artwork based on the themes of Morrison's writing – such as American ideals of beauty and the scars of slavery – and connecting them to life in contemporary Buffalo.

The work will be on view before Morrison's reading in Kleinhans' Mary Seaton Room.

For Lily Lettieri, a sophomore in Becky Moda's art class at City Honors School, reflecting on Morrison's book "The Bluest Eye" and examining Buffalo's highly segregated population led her to create a striking piece about the persistent divide between black and white.

The piece, based on the style of contemporary artist Kara Walker, features cut-outs of human figures in black construction paper against a white background. Three silhouettes of white heads float along the left side of the piece, and three heads belonging to black figures line the right. They are separated by a pair of potent symbols: a confederate flag, and a plantation house flipped upside down.

"I was thinking about the slave [issues] that Kara Walker deals with in her work, and the idea of a plantation and different families surviving in their own circles, like in our city," said Lettieri, who noted with disappointment in her voice that her Elmwood Village neighborhood remains almost monolithically white.

The flag and its message, she said, "is the same thing that separates us still."

Words become action

Many of those who attended King's speech went on to turn the words he spoke at Kleinhans into actions. One of them was the Buffalo Public Schools official James Heck, who, like King, hailed from a long line of Baptist ministers but broke with the local boycott of the speech in order to attend.

"There was just no way in the world I was going to miss it," he said.

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 visit to Buffalo

Heck, who had long been involved in progressive education efforts in Buffalo, went on to become the director of school integration for Buffalo Public Schools and spearheaded major reports on cross-busing and high suspension rates for black students. Later, he circulated petitions in City Hall and elsewhere to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday.

"I felt very, very inspired to go out and do even more than I was doing," he said. "I was inspired beyond measure, determined to go out and do what I could to support his movement."

Later, Heck was the subject of a death threat from someone upset with his efforts to integrate Buffalo's schools. But he said he took comfort from King during that difficult time, reassuring himself by repeating one of the civil right's leaders most famous quotes:

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy," Heck said, reciting the quote from memory. "This is the way I view him and the way I try to emulate what he did in my life."

Optimism endures

Many of those who closely study race relations in America and King's legacy take a dim view of the progress that has been made since 1967.

"The truth is his warning in 1967 fell on deaf ears," said SUNY Buffalo State history and social studies education professor Steve Peraza in his Oct. 18 lecture "When the King Came to Buffalo" in the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.

"If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were in Buffalo today, he would say the U.S. has fallen victim to a dangerous optimism, a false hope that civil rights victories against segregation and disenfranchisement have eradicated the U.S. race problem. And he would be correct."

But for Cole and dozens of others involved in "The Civil Writes Project" – along with the 2,400 who will listen to Morrison on Thursday – a certain kind of optimism endures.

"As a literary organization," Cole said, "this is what we can do collectively. To say: We must attend to this history. We must attend to this moment and envision a different future."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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