Venerated Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr. Speaks at The University of Utah

By Liam Elkington

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most documented figures in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. His active support of anti-segregation policies in the South, his status as a community minister and his ability to speak from his experience as a Black man in America cemented him as one of the most revered and significant men not only of his time, but in all of American history. His outspoken advocacy for civil rights earned King many invitations to speak of colleges and universities, one of them being the University of Utah.


A portrait of Dr. King published in the Daily Utah Chronicle that was used to promote his visit.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born to a middle-class family in Georgia in 1929. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., was a Baptist minister, and his mother Alberta was a schoolteacher. He attended Morehouse College and Cozer Theological Seminary, later conducting his doctoral studies at The School of Theology at Boston University. In 1955, while working as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, he became a leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His role in that nonviolent protest is thought to have propelled him into national awareness, as discussions surrounding the Civil Rights Movement coming out of Alabama grew in frequency and became the concern of not only African Americans living in the South, but Whites too. (Lincoln, 1970)

In 1961, King was invited to speak at the University of Utah, where he was to deliver his speech titled “The Future of Integration.” Leading up to the event, which was to be held in the Union Ballroom on January 31 at 8:15 p.m., The Daily Utah Chronicle gave context to readers regarding King and his accomplishments. On January 26, 1961, the Chronicle reported in the article, “Revered King, Set for Ute Talk, Becomes ‘Reluctant Race Leader,’” information about when and where King would be speaking, noting that the event was organized by ASUU Assemblies and Convocations committee. The article referred to King using an outdated term, calling him a “negro leader.”

Other Chronicle articles also preceded the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr., further advertising the event and further stating his accomplishments as a scholar and author. On January 30, 1961, Elaine Krans wrote in “Martin Luther King Sets Campus Speech” that King achieved fame after “his preaching of non-violence succeeded in ending the segregation on the public buses of Montgomery, Alabama.” On January 31, “Southern Leader Speaks on Race Problem Tonight” highlighted again how King used peaceful methods for social progress.


Dr. King meets with Dr. J. D. Williams, who spoke at the event before King’s arrival.

However, the event did not go entirely to plan. King was delayed and so arrived at the University of Utah about two hours later than expected. While this may have caused some stress for the event organizers, they were vocal in their appreciation for the patience of the crowd gathered to hear King speak. In their letter to the editor published on February 6, 1961, Gail Plummer and Dave Gillette of the Assemblies committee thanked the student body for the “tremendous support.” They recounted how when they received the news that King would be late arriving, Dr. J. D. Williams stepped in to provide context and background for King’s remarks, filling time until his arrival. Plummer and Gillette were astounded at the attentiveness and enthusiasm of the crowd, citing the event as a success despite the delay. One student, Kay Winston, wrote in the April 4 Chronicle how the event demonstrated the maturity of the student body, praising the ability of the Assemblies and Convocations committee. Winston also advocated for bringing more controversial speakers on campus “so [students] may decide for themselves what they would like to believe, instead of being led down a road of one type of influential speaker.”

Following King’s visit, the Chronicle published an article on February 2, 1961, that summarized his primary points. “Negro Leader Looks at Integration” reported King’s belief that “integration will be accomplished, and stressed that it cannot be accomplished without sacrifice on the part of the Negro.”

The University of Utah continues to invite scholars and public figures of varying viewpoints to speak to its students. The sentiment of Kay Winston remains true, that being exposed to a variety of opinions allows those studying different worldviews to inform their own beliefs. This can be seen how the University of Utah continues to promote discussion surrounding important societal topics and allowing a variety of viewpoints to be shared, wherever they may come from. In 2017, notable conservative figure Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of Utah campus, creating much discord and some annoyance among the student body. While this may not have been the goal of Shapiro’s visit, it demonstrated that the university is still dedicated to providing a platform for speech that encourages students to think critically. Martin Luther King’s positions about social integration of a marginalized community surely were also seen as controversial, but still provided an opportunity for the students of 1961 to gain insight into a prominent movement. King’s vision of race integration may yet to completely come to pass, and the need for students to think and interact with important ideas has never diminished, therefore it continues to be a vital function of colleges and universities to provide an environment where students can interact with important ideas from a variety of sources and speakers.

Liam Elkington is a senior at The University of Utah, studying communication with an emphasis in journalism. He hopes to use his education to aid in the recording and reporting of truth.

Primary Sources

“Reverend King, Set for Talk, becomes ‘Reluctant Race Leader,’” Daily Utah Chronicle, January 26, 1961, 2.

Elaine Krans, ”Martin Luther King Sets Campus Speech,” Daily Utah Chronicle, January 30, 1961, 1.

“Southern Leader Speaks of Race Problem Tonight,” Daily Utah Chronicle, January 31, 1961, 1.

“Negro Leader Looks at Integration,” Daily Utah Chronicle, February 2, 1961, 1.

Gail Plummer and Dave Gillette, “Letters to the Editor: Thanks,” Daily Utah Chronicle, February 6, 1961, 2.

“Secretary Hopefuls Tell Duties, Responsibilities of ASUU Office,” Daily Utah Chronicle, April 4, 1961, 2.

Secondary Sources

Lincoln, C. E. Martin Luther King, Jr.; A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.