Historic Dr. King visit to Orlando nearly lost to history

Why was there so little coverage of King’s only visit?

ORLANDO, Fla. – People around the country will pause to remember and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The civil rights icon’s actual birthday is Jan. 15. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill designating the holiday be observed on the third Monday of January. It came 15 years after King was assassinated.

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King was a man known around the world. A visit to your city from the civil rights leader put the city on notice that change was about to happen.

Yet when King visited Orlando, on March 6, 1964, it was barely a blip on the radar.

That visit is nearly lost to history save for the few eyewitnesses who documented his only trip to The City Beautiful.

King was just 35 years old when he visited Shiloh Baptist Church in downtown Orlando.

He was there at the request of Reverend Curtis Jackson, who was also King’s classmate at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Jackson knew a visit from King could spark change and break the barriers of segregation in Orlando.

However, if you search newspaper headlines or look through historical archives, you will find very little mention of King’s visit to Orlando.

Just two months earlier, King had been named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”

So why would a man who was the face, heart and soul of the civil rights movement not be greeted by a scrum of journalists?

“Dr. King’s visit represented necessary change” explains Pam Schwartz, the Chief Curator at the Orange County Regional History Center. “Maybe that was change that wasn’t happening quickly or quickly enough or at all in Orlando and Central Florida at the time. Our community, like much of the nation, does not have a beautiful past when it comes to the relationships of individuals of different colors.”

The Black community was aware King was coming to town. They also knew his presence would draw the likes of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Some parents told their children to not attend the rally, which was planned at Tinker Field, fearing what might happen to them.

Jeff Kunerth spent 41 years as a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel. He did a series of stories on the black youth leading the charge for change in segregated Orlando. More than a decade ago he spoke with some of the people who were just teens when King came to town.

“I think every one of them knew how important that was how significant and how special it was to have King come to Orlando and meet with them and talk with them encourage them,” Kunerth said.

In 2009, Kunerth interviewed a woman who was one of those young people. Sandra Poston Johnson was just 19 when she met Dr. King at Shiloh Baptist Church.

Kunerth was interviewing her about being a young activist in the 1960′s when he says something remarkable happened.

“She opens her purse and pulls out that picture and it just blew me away,” Kunerth said.

That picture was of Johnson and seven others on the steps of Shiloh Baptist Church with King.

“That was a real moment... that was a real surprise. And to think she had been carrying with her all those years to remind herself of that one thing,” Kunerth said.

Kunerth now teaches journalism at the University of Central Florida. He says it’s important for Dr. King’s visit to be documented for posterity.

“When something is not recorded and not reported then it becomes forgotten,” said Kunerth.

That picture is one of the few reminders of when King came to Orlando.

Now there is also a plaque at Tinker Field, commemorating his trip and his speech to about 2,000 people that night.

Plaque commemorating the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Tinker Field in Orlando (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

There wasn’t a black church big enough to hold that many people and it was also the first time Blacks could sit in the whites-only section of the ballpark. Perhaps a sign of things to come.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings grew up in Orlando.

“I was a child in elementary school during that period of time and so I remember that very vividly,” said Demings.

King’s visit sparked desegregation in Orlando and likely paved the way for Demings to become the first African-American Mayor of Orange County in 2008. 54 years after King’s visit.

Demings said, “So while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.”

And that is why King’s visit is so important to remember. He sparked change, brought injustice to light, and paved the way for so many others. Those contributions must be remembered because each one is a piece of the foundation that has made Orlando, and other places, better for all people of color.

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