ORLANDO, Fla. – The year was 1964 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., made his first and only stop in Orlando.
In March of that year, he spoke to a crowd of at least 2,000 people at Tinker Field about the importance of voting, nonviolence and equality for everyone.
Ezzie Thomas, 91, of Orlando, still reflects and remembers first-hand the civil rights movement and the segregation and injustice right here in Central Florida.
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“It was rough, but we kept hope alive,” Thomas said. “I was called all kinds of names, and I was asked to get to the back, behind the line.”
He said he still remembers riding in the back of the bus and drinking from what used to be called colored water fountains.
“I didn’t see an end at that time, but I knew things would get better,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he was in his 30s back in March 1964 when he got to meet King when the reverend spoke to a crowd of people at then Tinker field, now known as Camping World Stadium. King first made a stop at Shiloh Baptist after meeting with the NACCP Youth Council.
Thomas said King’s speech about voting and nonviolence was inspiring, encouraging him to continue his work as part of the NAACP, the Orange County Voters League and even becoming a successful Parramore business owner.
“I think the progress of racial equality here locally was kind of slower than some of the people here would have hoped,” said Jeremy Hileman from the Orange County Regional History Museum.
Louise Dinkins, 77, was only 18 years old back in 1964 and got to meet King, too.
“He held my hand and looked me straight in the face and said ‘I’m glad we have young people participating in this area,’” Dinkins said.
Dinkins shared how she was even arrested once after she and other African Americans took part in local sit-ins at restaurants like Kress in downtown Orlando. She said she was Inspired by King’s passion for promoting nonviolence, equality and justice for all.
“He came to encourage us to stay strong and to give us strength,” Dinkins said.
Gail Pressley’s cousin is the late Jim Perry, an Orlando civil rights activist. He was part NAACP Youth Council in Orlando. She said they were inspired by King’s message.
“He charged African Americans from Orlando to take your rightful stand, stand up and be counted because you are a human being and you are worthy of having a seat the table,” Pressley said.
She said her cousin was appointed by then-mayor Bobb Carr to sit on the city’s inter-relations council aimed at promoting equality for all people. She said her cousin also took part in local sit-ins at restaurants like the ones at Kress.
“My cousin was very involved in having students from the great Jones High School come and participate in these sit-ins,” Pressley said.
The recent protests nationwide – and even here in Central Florida – after George Floyd’s death were inspiring many say, but the fight continues.
The Orange County Regional History Museum said King was invited to Orlando by his Morehouse College classmate Reverend Curtis Jackson who was then the pastor at Shiloh Baptist. At least 2,000 people were present here in 1964 for King’s speech.
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