When flight 402 from Atlanta landed at Denver’s Stapleton Airport on Friday, January 23, 1964, the plane carried the 1963 Time Magazine Man of the Year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was making an official consulting visit to Denver with a side trip to Littleton. January 2014 commemorates the 50th anniversary of this official visit.
Fred Brown, retired Denver Post journalist reflected, “When Dr. King came to town it was just two months after President Kennedy had been assassinated and a lot of people were still in shock about that. People in Denver didn’t think we necessarily had a problem. But, Dr. King’s visit, I think, helped increase awareness of the things that needed to be done to move toward a direction of equality.”
Dr. Vincent Harding, retired Professor, Iliff School of Theology states, “Towns like Denver were important to the movement partly because the movement was trying to indicate to the country that the issues we had tapped into in the South were essentially national issues.”
Dr. King had made previous public stops in Denver speaking at Manual High School in 1959 and keynoting the National Baptist Convention in June 1962. He would return again with public visits in 1967 with a press conference opposing the Vietnam War, but this was his only civic consulting visit.
Dr. King had just been named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year and later in 1964 would receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
“There was some objection at that time to paying a part of his salary out of city funds. The auditor at that time objected,” Dick Young reflected. “But we thought it made an awful lot of sense because that was a time of real turmoil in our country and to some extent here in Denver.”
“And it was over what was called consulting fees,” Brown adds. “The fee for the weekend, Friday through Sunday, was $200.”
In his objection, City Auditor Charles Byrne cited the Colorado State Constitution Article 9, Section 7, which prohibits the use of public funds for any sectarian purpose. The Denver Human Relations Commission stated in part in their letter from Director Helen Peterson to the City: “This commission wishes to consult Dr. Martin L. King because of his knowledge, experience, and skill; as an authority on human relations; and as an individual. The funds we propose to pay to him are to be paid to him as a competent, professional individual, and not to his church or any other church or religious organization.”
The Denver City Attorney’s Office ended the controversy, stating: “The services rendered by Dr. King are to be performed under the sponsorship of the Commission on community relations, and consist of lectures, consultations, and question and answer sessions with the Commission, its executive board, religious leaders group, and business leaders in the Denver area.
The services to be provided to the city, through its commission on community relations are personal services, not connected with any school, church or sectarian group, and payment is to be made to Dr. King.
It is the opinion of this office the agreement with Dr. King is proper in view of the cited constitutional provisions and revised municipal code setting forth the duties of the commission.” -- W.H. VAN DUZER, Assistant City Attorney
Littleton is the Arapahoe County seat located 11 miles southwest of Denver and was then one of Denver’s largest suburban communities.
Garrett Ray, then editor of the Littleton Independent, reflected, “And it was still a county seat kind of town. We didn’t feel like a suburb even though we were, we were rapidly growing into a suburb. But at that time Littleton had a very strong identity as a community. Now this was a community that was, was for all practical purposes, totally white. We had Hispanic families who had been part of the community for several generations, the Trujillo’s and others.”
Dr. Ellie Greenberg then led the group in Littleton, “Well, those of us who were concerned with the issues of civil rights at the time had really taken up the banner you might say of the civil rights movement in other parts of the country through forming a group called the Littleton Council for Human Relations.”
When the Littleton group learned of Dr. King’s visit they contacted the Denver group to add Littleton to his itinerary.
“I didn’t believe that could happen. I thought that sounded like a wonderful news story and a wonderful opportunity, but why in the world would he come out here?” Garrett Ray remembered.
“People said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get Dr. King to come out and talk to us and share some of his ideas with the community?’ And my reaction probably was, ‘Oh sure, when it happens let me know.’”
Editor Garrett Ray received his call and was in attendance when Dr. King met with citizens in Littleton at Grace Presbyterian Church, just after 4 p.m. on Saturday, January 25. The visit is reflected in a permanent display at the Littleton History Museum and is commemorated annually with a breakfast at Arapahoe Community College on the Monday holiday.
The full story of this special visit can be viewed in the documentary special When a King Came to Town on Sunday, January 19, 2014, 7 pm on KRMA/Rocky Mountain PBS, Channel 6.