Op-Ed

When MLK and the KKK met in Raleigh

Dr. King spoke before a crowd of 5,000 at Reynolds Coliseum July 31, 1966.
Dr. King spoke before a crowd of 5,000 at Reynolds Coliseum July 31, 1966. AP

Nearly forgotten, Dr. King spoke in Raleigh to an integrated audience of about 5,000 at Reynolds Coliseum at 4 p.m. on July 31, 1966. A counter-protest began two hours earlier with speeches at Memorial Auditorium and continued with a march by members from two factions of the Ku Klux Klan.

FBI files reveal these white supremacists had to reschedule their rally when King’s visit was postponed from July 10 due to his involvement in protesting housing conditions in Chicago’s Gage Park. Before MLK and the KKK met in Raleigh, King had moved his whole family into ghetto conditions in Chicago, fully committed to bringing change.

King spoke against “Black supremacy” in Raleigh because Stokely Carmichael had stirred crowds just weeks before in Mississippi by repeating violent declarations of “Black Power.” He also declared “The Negro needs the white man to save him from his fear, and the white man needs the Negro to save him from his guilt.”

Distinguished attorney Romallus O. Murphy and the Rev. W. B. Lewis invited King to Raleigh. Murphy had worked in Wilson, and had ties to King through attorney Samuel Mitchell. A pastor at First Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in Raleigh, Lewis had relatives in Rocky Mount and graduated from Shaw University.

King was on the lips of many pastors that weekend. Rev. H. W. Carey placed in ad in The N&O inviting those to come to Neuse Baptist Church to hear if Dr. King was “Christian or Anti-Christian — Christ or Anti-Christ.” His answer was clear as the day before King’s speech, Friendship Baptist Church, Mid-Way Baptist Church, Grace Baptist Church and Neuse Baptist Church took out an ad in the N&O stating that they opposed “Integration” and “King” as “RIOT, BLOODSHED, DISORDER, AND CONFUSION follow him” and because “The Communist cause is promoted.”

They were hardly alone. Dr. LeRoy Allen had invited Julia Brown from Massachusetts to speak the night before in Memorial Auditorium. She claimed authority as a nine-year undercover FBI agent before speaking on “Martin Luther King and his Communist Affiliations.”

No representative from N.C. State welcomed Dr. King to its own campus on July 31. Instead, Shaw University President Dr. James Cheek introduced the leader. As for the city, they sent City Councilman John Winters to shake hands with King at the airport, not the mayor. The N&O devoted twice the amount of space to the KKK rally as it did to King’s visit.

King appeared throughout North Carolina many other times. His first “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in Rocky Mount, nine months before the famous March on Washington. He came here in 1960 shortly after the sit-ins started in Greensboro. Because the new movement was then unnamed, King referred to them as “sit-downs” in personal letters and could only call the act a “creative protest” when he spoke at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church. In addition to appearing at Raleigh’s Broughton High School in February of 1958 and Edenton in December of 1962, he also spoke in Greensboro and Charlotte at multiple NAACP events.

I can only imagine the emotions felt by those who in turn watched the KKK gather outside Memorial Auditorium in 1966 to march up Salisbury Street, turn west on Hargett Street and enter Nash Square across from the Municipal Building. They dressed in full regalia. They set out guards in combat boots wearing shoulder patches bearing crosses. Two hundred National Guardsman stood ready in the wings. Police wore helmets and carried nightsticks.

KKK-Raleigh-4-1966.JPG
A young girl looks out of a car window at members of the KKK marching in downtown Raleigh near Nash Square, July 31, 1966. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke later that day at NC State’s Reynolds Coliseum. News & Observer file photo

Before speaking, Grand Dragon J. Robert Jones told Raleigh police to “see that them burrheads stay on that side of the street.”

After multiple instances of yelling racial slurs, Jones led a group that included Imperial Chaplin Rev. George Dorsett up McDowell Street to Hillsborough, then east to the State Capitol and down Fayetteville Street until they reached Memorial Auditorium again.

They strategically walked straight to the monument on the Capitol’s grounds dedicated to “Our Confederate Dead.” The $20,000 of taxpayer money spent to build it in 1895 is equivalent to $675,000 today. Crowds lined Fayetteville Street waiting for as much as an hour for the parade to arrive. There Jones boasted that “we had more people” than Martin Luther King’s speech.

He was wrong. The event stirred 1,800 to march for hatred. It was a Sunday.

They returned afterward to different cites — most of them far northeast of Raleigh — where many of them began their day in church. They had demonstrated what King himself called white backlash. They wore no masks.

W. Jason Miller is a professor of English at N.C. State University.

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