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Columns David Pendered

MLK to white Lutheran youths in 1961: ‘an old order is passing away….’

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. votes, with Coretta Scott King at his side, in an image at the King Center. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

By David Pendered

Sixty-one years ago in Miami Beach, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of doubling the number of Black registered voters in the South through a campaign of peaceful protests at places that had barred them from registering.

King unveiled the planned “stand-ins” Aug. 16, 1961, in a press conference reported by media including The New York Times and The Miami Herald. His goal was to reach that number of new registrations within two years. At the time, no one could have predicted the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

King went on from the press conference to speak that day to more than 14,000 white Lutheran teenagers and young adults at the Miami Beach Convention Hall. King was the guest of the Luther League of the American Lutheran Church.

“Thank you for your kindly applause,” King began. “I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here, and to be part of this significant convention. I have looked forward to this moment with great and eager anticipation.”

King did not pause to observe the obvious: He was a Black Baptist minister from the deep south, a forceful voice for civil rights, speaking to white Lutheran youths, most of whom had traveled from hometowns in the northern Midwest, where few Black people resided.

“I was pretty well flabbergasted! I didn’t know segregation was such a problem,” 17-year-old, blonde-haired Zona Torgrued, of Arlington, S.D., was quoted and described by The Miami Herald.

For the Lutheran youths, King framed civil rights as a moral issue, one for their generation to act on through their prism of Christianity. King never used the words “civil rights.” He spoke of “the old order of colonialism and imperialism” and “the new order of freedom and equality.”

King summoned their faith, urging listeners to look no farther than their hometown horizon to see that “no section of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.”

These words, spoken to more than 14,000 young people, may have helped prepare the ground for the coast-to-coast outrage spurred by reports of clashes including the melee on Bloody Sunday, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The youths who heard King speak in that convention hall said they have remembered his words throughout their lifetimes. “[M]any who have contacted me seeking a copy of the speech have commented on how important it was to their lives,” a church archivist wrote in an email.

One young woman who carried the message home was Zona Torgrued, the teen who said there are no Blacks in her hometown of Arlington, S.D.

“With God’s help, I’m going to tell others of Dr. King’s talk and how it has made me think,” Zona was quoted in The Miami Herald. “I feel challenged to help them and I’m willing to find out what can be done.”

Two years later, some of the themes King mentioned to the Luther League would resonate in his “I Have a Dream” speech. King delivered that speech on Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to eternity.

From Miami Beach to Washington, King was, himself, following the “arc of the moral universe” that he cited to the Lutheran youths. The arc continues through the present time, with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris planning to speak about national voting rights legislation during an appearance Tuesday in Atlanta. Biden foreshadowed his expected remarks in Atlanta in his message commemorating the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“Right now, in state after state, new laws are being written, not to protect the vote, but to deny it; not only to suppress the vote but to subvert it; not to strengthen or protect our democracy, but because the former president lost,” Biden’s said. “Instead of looking at the election results from 2020 and saying they need new ideas or better ideas to win more votes, the former president and his supporters have decided the only way for them to win is to suppress your vote and subvert our elections. It’s wrong. It’s undemocratic. And frankly, it’s un-American.”

Note to readers: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America provided archives used in this report.

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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