King Karma: Yesterday and Today

From the March, 2003 edition of The Valley Scene

Media Rants By Tony Palmeri

On January 20, 2003 in Oshkosh, the Fox Valley Peace Coalition sponsored a "March For the Life and Ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr." About 80 people braved blustering winds while carrying signs with sentiments such as "Unity Against Racism, Justice Through Peace" and "War Is Not The Answer." On a big banner stood this Kingism: "Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete."

The march started at the downtown Opera House Square and ended at UW Oshkosh Reeve Union. Demonstrators listened to impromptu speeches and music by local folk singers Barry Weber and Jason Moon. My impromptu speech included another King aphorism: "Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men."

The feelings of goodwill made Dr. King seem eerily present. One woman called it "good karma." I said we should call it "King Karma" attributable to the fact that the slain civil rights leader visited this region in 1967. Puzzled, she said: "Martin Luther King was here?" In part because establishment media portray our region as uncomfortable with the kind of social justice Christianity preached by King, it is difficult to imagine that 36 years ago there would have been a constituency in place to invite him. Yet invited he was. In the remainder of this rant I'll describe the event specifics.

The Oshkosh Northwestern of Thursday, May 11, 1967 printed a brief announcement headlined "Broadcasts Set For King Talk." King would speak the next evening at 8:15 p.m. at the University of Wisconsin Fox Valley Center in Menasha. Radio stations WHBY in Appleton and WMKC in Oshkosh planned to broadcast the speech (entitled "The Future of Integration") live. Lawrence University's campus radio station WLFM planned to tape the speech for a Sunday broadcast. The announcement said King would speak also at the UW Marathon County Center in Wausau.

The May 12 Northwestern carried an item headlined "Large Crowd Expected For King Speech." UW Center English professor and event organizer David Price said that over 600 mostly students and faculty were expected to attend. Thirty-five Menasha police officers were assigned to the event.

Some time ago one of my undergraduate students named Heather Evert researched King's Menasha speech. She identified individuals in addition to professor Price involved with the planning. Communication professor Ken Anderson handled closed circuit television. Economics professor Val Kopitzke organized a reception. Cliff Miller, former Appleton Post-Crescent Madison Bureau chief, covered King's visit for the Twin City News Record along with his editor John Turinas. Lutheran Pastor Gerald Kissell's church held a reception for King. UW Menasha Campus Dean Jim Perry, who in 1967 was President of the UW Marathon County student government, shared the dais and introduced Dr. King at the Youth Building in Marathon Park. All were moved by the event. Dean Perry told me recently about King's influence: "I'm a firm believer that when people get to know people, be they African-American, Hmong, or Iraqi, Christian, Hindu, Islamic or Atheists, the insanity of war and political strife begins to come tumbling down. Dr. Martin Luther King started me on this path of personal conviction."

The May 13th, 1967 Northwestern carried two stories about the speech, headlined "Racial Injustice Still Negro Burden: King," and "Police 'Cover' King Speech." In an accompanying photo, two young women are carrying signs saying "There's no link between the Vietnam War and Civil Rights" and "King Let Your People Go!!" The Northwestern photo caption said, "Approximately one dozen local high school students marched outside the Fox Valley Center Friday night protesting the anti-war views of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They refused to reveal which school they attend. King barely touched on the subject of Vietnam in his speech." The paper reported expectations of 3 separate demonstrations, but only the one materialized.

The King Center in Atlanta does not have the Menasha speech, nor unfortunately did any of the Valley media keep copies of recordings. I spoke to Cynthia Lewis of the King Center Library and Archives who said that in 1967-68 King delivered "The Future of Integration" often. She sent me a manuscript delivered at Kansas State University in January of 1968. The Northwestern Menasha speech coverage and the Kansas speech indicate that King's main points centered on providing a history of racial injustice in America, a progress report on the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, a debunking of myths that get in the way of creating change, and calls for guaranteed employment and income. The Vietnam War he identified as not only "unjust and ill-considered," but a diversion from our domestic problems.

As I write it is February 16th, the day after millions of peace demonstrators in over 600 cities on 5 continents said a resounding NO to the George Bush, Tony Blair Iraq policy. One of the million protesters in Rome, 56-year-old Tommaso Palladini, expressed the King Karma: "You don't fight terrorism with a preventive war. You fight terrorism by creating more justice in the world."

Knowledge of King's visit enables contemporary peace and justice advocates in the region to hold one hand out to the past and reach out to the change agents of that time. The task then is to take the other hand and extend it into the future so that change agents 36 years from now can tap into the King Karma anew.

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