King's Journey Took Him to Southern California on Several Occasions

The famous civil rights leader visited Pasadena and L.A. in 1958, 1960 and 1965, speaking at Caltech and Friendship Baptist Church.

Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 81 on Saturday, visited Pasadena several times during his life, beginning with a 1958 speaking engagement at Caltech.

On his first visit to Pasadena, in February 1958, King was only 29 but already well-known in the civil rights movement,  having organized the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

King was invited to the campus by the Leaders of America program, which brought distinguished speakers to Caltech, in a trip cosponsored by the YMCA, and for several days, King dined in the Caltech dorms, met with faculty and gave several lectures on campus.

Arriving in Pasadena on Feb. 25, 1958, King made two speeches at Caltech that day: "A Great Time to Be Alive” and “Facing the Challenges of a New Age.” Outlining his philosophy of nonvi0lent resistance, King told the Caltech crowd that blacks in the South must “meet the hate of the old order with the love of the new order” and struggle “with love and with nonviolence.”

King spoke at Dabney Hall and the Athenaeum and gave a third address on Feb. 26, titled “Progress in Race Relations.”

Though the university had scarcely any black students at the time, the white undergraduates who heard him speak were impressed and outraged at the injustices he spoke of in the South.

In a 1998 Caltech article commemorating the 40th anniversary of King’s visit, Kent Frewing, the student who chauffeured King from Beverly Hills to Pasadena, recalled the visit.

“We were all very pleased that we were able to get him to come,” Frewing was quoted as saying. "Here was a moral leader that we were able to bring to campus.” King concluded his Caltech visit on Feb. 27, 1958.

The following year, King traveled to India, where he traveled to Mahatma Gandhi's birthplace, met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and visited some of the country's poorest areas. The same year, several of his sermons were compiled and published in a short volume called The Measure of a Man.

Some time in the 1950s, King had struck up a correspondence with Marvin T. Robinson, pastor of Pasadena's Friendship Baptist Church, who was a dedicated civil rights activist. Robinson had invited King to speak at the church on several occasions, but King had found himself busy until 1960, when he conducted a fundraising trip to Southern California for the SCLC and agreed to give a sermon to Robinson's congregation.

Located at 80 West Dayton Street in Old Town Pasadena, Friendship Baptist Church was established in 1893 and is still one of the oldest black churches in Pasadena. (Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) 

The church stands a block away from what was once the Hotel Carver, a black-owned establishment at the corner of Dayton and Fair Oaks that in the 1940s and ‘50s boasted the Onyx Club, where musicians like Dizzie Gillespie, Erroll Garner and Clora Bryant performed.

King’s visit to Pasadena was preceded by a disturbing incident in Altadena. On the night of Saturday, Feb. 20, 1960, strangers burned an 18-foot tall cross on the lawn of a black family on Olive Avenue and smashed a beer bottle against their door.

Perhaps unaware of the incident, King did not mention it in his sermon, rather expanding on a 1954 address he had previously given. In a sermon titled "The Three Dimensions of a Meaningful Life," King addressed topics ranging from his trip to India and the Montgomery boycotts to the foundations of a meaningful life.

“My good friend, Rev. Robinson, distinguished guests, members and friends of the Friendship Baptist Church of Pasadena,” he began. “I am certainly delighted to have the privilege and pleasure of being with you today and of being a part of this worship experience.”

Elaborating on the title of his sermon, King went on to emphasize the need for “rational and moral self-interest," as well as “that dimension in which we are concerned about others" and faith in God. He also castigated whites for being too concerned with “their preferred economic positions, their political power, their so-called way of life.”

“When the history books are written in the future years," he said, "historians will have to say, 'America died because too many of her people were concerned about the length of life and not concerned about the breadth of life.'"

King's sermon was well-received, and he and the Rev. Robinson kept up a correspondence that lasted many years.

King returned to Friendship Baptist Church in 1965. Since his previous visit, King had won a Nobel Prize, delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and been named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. When he came to Friendship Baptist Church on July 12, crowds were so strong that a police barricade had to be erected around the church to control crowds and protect King. This time, Marvin Robinson introduced him as the “Moses of the 20th Century.”

King had a different message five years after his sermon on the dimensions of a meaningful life. He took aim at the failings of American churches, both white and black--at Southern Baptists who donated to charities in Africa but would not allow blacks to worship in their congregations and to black churches for getting too involved in “dignity and classism” and with “emotionalism.”

“Many people have more religion in their hands and feet than in their hearts and souls,” he said.

Appearing at the church on July 12, 1965, he also seized a rare opportunity to meet a fellow crusader in the civil rights movement—the Rev. Ashton Jones of San Gabriel, who was associate pastor at the People’s Independent Church of Christ in Los Angeles.

Like King, Jones was a native of Georgia, but unlike King, he was white. Born in 1896, Jones began advocating for racial equality in his native South while a young man and eventually became one of the most dedicated activists in the civil rights movement.

Espousing a similar commitment to nonviolence, Jones was arrested 40 times between 1954 and 1966 for acts of civil disobedience. In 1963, he traveled to Atlanta, where he and several African-American students, as well as a white girl, attempted to integrate the segregated First Baptist Church, which only allowed blacks to attend services in the basement.

Jones was arrested for “disturbing a church worship” and served eight months in a Georgia prison, where he was beaten by guards and thrown in solitary confinement. He went on hunger strike twice to protest his treatment before being released on bail. (“I’ll be glad to go back whenever I’m called,” he later told the Los Angeles Times.)

Jones was active in the Southland, too, organizing a sit-in in Monterey Park in 1962 when a real estate developer refused to sell a land tract to a black physicist and his wife, leading a prayer for King on the steps of City Hall and later blocking the entrance to the Federal Building on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles during a 1965 sit-in.

Much like King, who regularly received death threats, Jones was the victim of terror and intimidation from those who disliked his activism. In 1935, while campaigning for equality in Arkansas, he was kidnapped at gunpoint by white vigilantes who tied a hood over his head and beat him unconscious with tree branches.

In 1965, when he and his wife moved from San Gabriel to Temple City, the windows of his car were shot out, his dog was poisoned and an anonymous call was made to his house with the caller using racial epithets to describe him.

For Martin Luther King Jr., it was a true honor to meet such a dedicated participant in the movement. On that day in 1965, Jones waited behind the police barricade on De Lacey Street, and upon seeing him, King rushed to greet him and reportedly exclaimed, “Ashton Jones! God bless you, Ashton." (Sadly, Jones would outlive King—dying in San Diego in June, 1979.)

July 1965 marked King's last significant visit to Pasadena, though he may have returned briefly when he came to Los Angeles to quell tensions from the Watts Riots. His wife, Coretta Scott King, however, was invited back to Friendship Baptist Church and appeared there at on April 24, 1966.

Among King's countless contributions to equality and civil rights in the United States, perhaps most significant is his attempt to reveal our commonalities.

"In a real sense the Negro cannot be free in Pasadena or Los Angeles until the Negro is free in Jackson, Mississippi and Montgomery, Alabama.," King said in his 1960 sermon. "We are all involved in a single struggle."

Author's note: Excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1960 sermon at Friendship Baptist Church came from an audio transcription available at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project website maintained by Stanford University.

This story was originally published in January 2011.


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