PATERSON, NJ- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Paterson for two hours at most. It was the third stop of a long day, and he was so exhausted he almost had to be propped up as he stood and spoke. Still, 50 years later, those who were there remember the energy of his speech, and see it as a life-changing, landmark, event in Paterson’s storied history.
Though, as Jimmy Richardson recalled, a newspaper from the day after his speech ran with the headline “They waited two hours to see Dr. King for five minutes,” the local historian said it was longer than that.
The ‘they’ were an estimated 2,200 people that packed into the pews and onto the lawn and streets surrounding the Community Baptist Church of Love. They came to get a glimpse of the civil rights leader, and, if they were lucky, to hear what he had to say. They were the witnesses to King’s second-to-last public speech, only eight days before he was killed.
March 27, 1968 was a busy day for King. He was on a tour of northern New Jersey as part of his “Poor People’s Campaign” to address poverty in the U.S., while also raising funds and support for a second March on Washington.
“It was inclusive of all nationalities, but specifically targeted to poor people in this country. It was also about the war in Vietnam, where poor people were going and being killed for a war that wasn’t ours.” says Richardson of the campaign.
King began his morning in Newark, giving a speech and touring the city, then headed to Jersey City to do the same. He was worn and exhausted by the time he reached the outskirts of Paterson at about 6 pm. A group of residents met and escorted King to the church, which was then located on Auburn Street, where the massive crowd of onlookers awaited.
Don Curtis was an officer of the NAACP and part of the greeting party that accompanied him on the way to the church. King spoke to him and NAACP President Gilbert Benson as they walked. “He said that he was proud to be here and that he hoped that our efforts in terms of the NAACP were coming along okay and if we needed anything that he could help us with, we could get in touch with his office,” Curtis told TAPinto Paterson.
After entering the church, King took his place on the pulpit. He was so tired from the long day, Richardson says that he nearly needed to be held up to keep from collapsing until he began to speak, then “he became very much energized.”
Dr. King spoke briefly in the commanding but comforting tone he was very much known for. It wasn’t particularly unique, as King speeches go, observers recalled, but was lent power thanks to the energized atmosphere and massive crowd.
“He spoke about the issues and the quality of life and how we could improve it by making sure that we voted,” says Curtis, who watched from the third row. Richardson says he also talked about education, Vietnam, and non-violence. The bulk of the speech, however, was focused on how to solve the issue of poverty.
“We want to bring pressure on Congress to recognize our needs, and to demonstrate to our government it must face up and solve the problems of the poor people,” said Dr. King according to reports at the time. “It is a shame that this nation, wealthiest in the history of the world, has 40 million poor people. We are going to Washington, seat of this government, to dramatize the horrors and evils of poverty."
Using one of his oft-repeated calls for progress, King stated that “if you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Following his speech, King left the church, and was escorted out of Paterson. He gave no other public addresses until seven days later when he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. The next day he was shot and killed as he stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Benjamin Leak was one of two police officers assigned to guard King during his time in Paterson. He was devastated when he learned of King’s death. Only eight days earlier, he and Charles Council, the other officer assigned to bodyguard duty, had stood on either side of Dr. King as he spoke.
Leak had begun following King’s progress after hearing about the bus boycotts in 1955. Having grown up in the intensely segregated schools of Greensboro, North Carolina, he saw hope in the teachings of Dr. King. Despite that, he says he had “mixed feelings” about his assignment.
“I thought we were put there to fail,” says Leak of himself and Council. They were two of only a handful of African American police officers in Paterson at the time, and the attitude of the department towards black officers then “wasn’t very friendly.”
“They weren’t even assigning black policemen to patrol cars at that time,” he says. “Even if a person assigned to a car had a day off, they wouldn’t even put us in as a replacement.” Leak notes that not all of his peers carried the same attitude towards he and his fellow black officers, saying that he made a number of lifelong friends during his two decades on the force.
Still, he noted, they usually got the short end of the stick. “That was the way it was.” Leak was usually assigned to the traffic division as a school safety officer working with junior patrols. He drove a motorcycle and spent a lot of his time with the kids, which he didn’t mind.
So it was a little confusing when he got the call about guarding Dr. King. “I was worried and I didn’t understand why they had picked me.” He knew about the death threats that followed everywhere King went, and had heard the story about a woman in Harlem who had stabbed him 10 years earlier. He thought that maybe the higher ups were hoping something bad would happen because “the climate between African Americans and the authorities wasn’t utopia.”
On the day of the speech, he was nervous but focused. They had been told that there were death threats. He was deadly serious about making sure nothing happened on his watch. “I have no idea what he said. I don’t even know if I looked at him. I was watching the crowd,” Leak says.
After King’s death, the city braced for turmoil. Riots had erupted in Paterson in 1964 and 1967 over racial unrest, and there was talk of uprisings all across the country. Then Mayor Lawrence “Pat” Kramer closed the schools and tension began to escalate. However, the city got off easy when, as Richardson put it “nothing reportable happened after King’s assassination.”
Instead of lashing out, the city grieved. Life went on, as did the Poor People’s Campaign. On May 12, Coretta Scott King led a group of thousands to the National Mall in Washington where they set up a camp known as “Resurrection City.” They stayed there for six weeks to advocate for a number of economic reforms related to poverty.
Meanwhile, Paterson was in desperate need of change. According to Leak, the city was often referred to as “Up South” in reference to its Southern-like racial divide. African Americans were subject to all sorts of mistreatment. Movie theaters were segregated, restaurants sometimes refused them service altogether, and they could only walk to Eastside Park along Broadway or risk being stopped by the police.
More damaging, as industry left the city, “white flight” began. Whites started leaving Paterson, while still owning property. In neighborhoods like the 4th ward, where King spoke, white owners would rent out their properties, often charging as much as double to African American tenants, if they would rent to them at all. Poverty spread and jobs became scarce. “That is how you build a ghetto,” says Richardson.
While Paterson has come a long way from the “Up South” days, growing into one of the most diverse cities in the country, with significant minority representation in local government, one would imagine that Dr. King would still see significant room for progress were he to walk these streets today.
After all, his visit to Paterson was about poverty, not race. And in that regard, there is still much work to be done. With a 29% poverty rate and a median household income $40,000 less than the state average, Paterson is one of the poorest cities in the state.
Reverend Allan Boyer preaches at Bethel AME Church, which now occupies the building that Dr. King spoke in. To him, King’s anti-poverty message is still just as relevant as it was back then.
“Its very valuable to us. We try to uphold it and his philosophy as we preach the gospel. To us, if you’re not feeding the hungry, you don’t love the neighborhoods and you don’t love yourself,” says Boyer.
King’s views on poverty are often overlooked by politicians and those who promote his message of racial equality without mentioning that it included economic equality as well. With welfare and social service programs under attack by many in the country, it is important to remember his appeals for help.
“If our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth,” said King in a statement he repeated throughout the country, including during his speech in Paterson.
Don Curtis says the Paterson speech “tended to make us really look at the people who were impoverished in the town and try to set up things to alleviate that.”
It’s been fifty years since King visited Paterson, urging residents to take ownership of their community, and action in the voting booth. Paterson voters go to the polls on Tuesday, May 8.