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Adrian Walker

When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Boston

In the spring of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received an interesting invitation from Boston, a city with which he had a complicated history.

The dispute over segregated schools that would erupt nearly a decade later had begun to percolate. And some of King’s old friends in Boston had the idea of inviting the world’s most celebrated civil rights leader to town.

So it was that April 22, 1965, brought a first: King addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature, the first lawmaking body that had ever invited him to speak. The following day, he led a march from Lower Roxbury to Boston Common. It marked the first time he led a march outside of the South.

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King, of course, had ties to Boston; he earned a PhD at Boston University. The invitation to speak before the Legislature was the work of its three black members: the Rev. Michael Haynes, Royal Bolling, and Frank Holgate.

Haynes, the retired legendary pastor of Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, had been close to King since their days there as young ministers in the early 1950s. In fact, King had been among those who encouraged Haynes to seek political office.

“The schools were very segregated and the school committee was very resistant,’’ Haynes said recently. “There was an increasing sense that the schools were going down the drain as far as blacks were concerned. [King’s] imprint was so huge that it was almost a natural reaction that there needed to be a protest, and that he needed to lead that protest.’’

But before the march, he was to speak to the Legislature. In the South, he was anathema to politicians, but the Legislature voted by a wide margin to invite him.

“For one who has been barricaded from the seats of government, and jailed so many times for attempting to petition legislatures and councils, I can assure you that this is a momentous occasion,’’ King told them.

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He was careful not to bash his hosts, though at other times he mentioned housing discrimination he had encountered when he moved to Boston to attend BU.

King was keenly aware that he would be speaking to an audience deeply enthralled with the Kennedys. While calling for an end to segregation, he took pains to praise the role the state had played in the fight for liberty, and to praise John F. Kennedy for introducing civil rights legislation.

King found himself on more familiar ground the next day, when he led a march for better schools that began at Carter Playground, not far from King’s old Massachusetts Avenue digs. He stopped at Slade’s, then the epicenter of middle-class black nightlife, before leading a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands, calling for an end to segregated schools.

“He rallied the ministers of different theological persuasions and the activists and the educators,’’ Haynes said. “It was great. The speech to the Legislature and the March on Boston have never been given the attention they deserve.’’

By the time of King’s visit, the battle lines over busing had already taken shape, with the black community on one side and South Boston on the other. The inexorable path from protest to lawsuit to civic strife was underway, despite King’s plea for a search for common ground.

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He maintained an affection for Boston, where so much of his philosophy of nonviolence had taken shape. Haynes recalls chatting with King in his last visit here, as opposition mounted to King’s activism.

“He knew what was coming, and he could have stood down, he could have avoided it,’’ Haynes said. “But he knew that this was his hour, this was his calling, and he faced that with a courage I will never forget for the rest of my life.’’

Many believe the civil rights movement missed Boston, but they are mistaken. For two days in 1965, it was the home to King’s signature challenge, his demand that America live up to its ideals.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.