Trying to research the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s early visits to Pittsburgh is a challenge. The source where you’d expect to find quotes and photos — newspapers — hardly covered the civil rights leader on his first few trips to the city. The Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press wrote short briefs announcing his visits but didn’t seem to send reporters or photographers to cover King, who was then famous for leading the Montgomery bus boycotts.
But a rally of 10,000 people at Forbes Field in 1960 was enough to attract some media attention and Pittsburghers finally heard from the man who’d become one of the greatest orators in American history.
“If America is to survive it must solve this problem,” King said of segregation. “You will ask, then, how long will it take? And I say it will not be long before black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants will say we’re free at last.”
King headlined the Freedom Jubilee rally again the next year. In an interview with the Post-Gazette, he called for an end to poll taxes and literacy tests, two common voter suppression methods targeting black voters.
“I don’t mind being a trouble maker if its creative trouble I’m bringing about,” he said. “I think it’s necessary to bring about tension — so long as there is non-violence.”
King continued, telling the PG, “I feel there is a small minority in the South that really fights integration, but the silence of those who do not wish to make a stand or who are indifferent is appalling.”
The civil rights leader’s next appearance in Pittsburgh received more prominent coverage in Pittsburghers newspapers. In the 4 years since his Freedom Jubilee appearances, King had delivered his “I have a dream speech,” won the Nobel Peace Prize and lead the Selma to Montgomery March. Coverage in the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the country’s most influential black newspapers, documents King’s rise to national prominence.
When King walked into the University of Pittsburgh’s student union in November 1966, an overflow crowd of 1,000 greeted him. The PG story on his visit focused on King’s belief in non-violent protest being African-Americans’ “most potent weapon” in fighting for equality.
While calling riots “self-defeating” he told the crowd that a riot is “the language of the unheard.”
“Summers of delay” in ignoring to the plight of African-Americans, King said, will lead to “winters of riots.”
He also incorporated his stance against the Vietnam War into his message of racial and economic justice.
“Some people are more concerned about winning the war in Vietnam than they are about winning the war on poverty right here at home,” he said. “I must say to you no matter how much I’m criticized for it I never intend to adjust to the madness of militarism.”
The Pitt visit would be his last speech in Pittsburgh. King was assassinated 17 months later, April 4, 1968, at a hotel in Memphis. In Pittsburgh and throughout the country cities held memorial services and tributes to King.
As the nation mourned King’s death, African-American communities across the country, including in Pittsburgh, reacted to his murder with riots. In “The week the Hill rose up,” The Digs chronicled how simmering frustration over decades of poverty, powerlessness and prejudice boiled over in the Hill District following King’s assassination.
In the years and decades that followed, Pittsburgh paid tribute to King’s message of equality in churches, parks and on streets across the city.