On July 31, 1966, the iconic Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Reynolds Coliseum. However, his appearance in Raleigh was greatly overlooked and censored by the public and media. Even 54 years later, people are still clueless about King’s visit to NC State’s campus. How does an event with such big historical implications and figures get lost in history?
Jason Miller, a professor of English and the African-American Cultural Center Library’s 2019-2020 scholar-in-residence, seeks to answer this question with his new research. Miller presented to a crowd of over 100 people in a lecture titled, “When MLK and the KKK Met in Raleigh: Read, Listen, Watch, Remember” on Jan. 15 in Witherspoon Student Center Campus Cinema.
According to Miller, when King drove down Raleigh’s now-Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to arrive at Reynolds, he came in close contact with the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan marching down Fayetteville Street to protest his appearance.
To accommodate and prepare for the assumed riots that would happen in Raleigh that day, the Governor of North Carolina, *Dan Moore, called in and had the National Guard move to Raleigh from Smithfield, North Carolina, Miller said.
“A group of people were so worried about racial tension and violence in this community that they had brought in a standing [army] outside of the city,” Miller said. “People feared the worst. That’s just the beginning.”
Media outlets were more interested in the KKK rally than King, Miller said. The News & Observer sent eight photographers to cover the rally but only one photographer from the Associated Press to cover King’s speech. The lack of King in the media was apparent in the 1966 Technician, in which neither event was covered. However, it was even more clear when The News & Observer printed their Aug. 1, 1966 issue.
“If you were to flip to page 3, the entire page is about the Klan rally,” Miller said. “If you flip further, you would see another column and a half devoted to Martin Luther King.”
While completing his research, Miller found about 150 undeveloped photographs of the two events in the State Archives of North Carolina. In one of the photographs, Chief of Police Tom Davis, greeted and shook the hand of Robert Jones, grand dragon of the KKK.
“What does it mean that the chief of police does not have a picture shaking hands with Dr. King?” Miller said.
To counter the Klan rally against King, about 40-60 people from the Raleigh community gathered downtown and held signs with anti-racist and anti-hate messages such as, “Be a man, oppose the Klan” and, “We need brotherhood, not the Klan.”
The Klan’s rally did not affect the success of King’s event in Reynolds, however. After King was introduced to the crowd of over 5,000 by Shaw University President James Cheek, he received a non-stop standing ovation for five minutes. After visiting Raleigh, King took one phrase with him:
“For North Carolina being one of the most liberal states in our country, I will never understand how they can have the largest KKK,” King said.
The rediscovered photographs are displayed in an exhibit in the African American Cultural Center at Witherspoon Student Center until Feb. 7. This exhibit documents the forgotten history of NC State’s campus and King’s legacy. Miller’s research brought long-deserved recognition to an event that never should have been forgotten in the first place. Additionally, Wolf Tales, an NC State University Libraries video archive, will document and protect campus history for decades to come.
“Dr. King came to Raleigh,” Miller said. “From this day forward, nobody will never not know that.”
At the end of his lecture, Miller acknowledged Ira Harris, who attended King’s speech at Reynolds when he was just 13 years old.
Harris said he is pleased with Dr. Miller’s work and contributions to the African American Cultural Center at NC State. He emphasized the racial struggle that existed back in the 60s, but it has not been completely eliminated.
“It’s been lost in history,” Harris said about Miller’s research. “It means everything to me, because it was a struggle when we were called Negroes and it’s still a struggle when we’re called blacks. So, I’m glad Dr. King is getting the recognition that he deserved back then.”
Tia Canada, president of the AYA ambassadors at NC State, praised Miller’s research and his contributions to the African American Cultural Center as its scholar-in-residence. Canada also emphasized how relevant unveiling this significant piece of history is to the African American student experience on campus today.
“Just to know that Dr. King was here on campus is a reminder that we have the [capability] to do this as a university,” Canada said. “This is something that we should propel into the future of representation of black students on campus.”
To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day on Jan. 20, Miller encourages people to remember King’s effects on Raleigh and the South as a whole.
“To commemorate this holiday, you don’t have to think of him as a figure that was far away … someone that only lives in history books,” Miller said. “He walked among us. His story is potent and powerful and reveals a great deal about us.”
*Editor's Note: Governor's name has been changed for accuracy