Breaking News
More () »

On MLK Jr. Day, King's visit to Mankato in 1961 still resonates

In one of his earliest visits to the state of Minnesota, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. issued a call for federal civil rights legislation and an end to segregation.

MANKATO, Minn. — On Nov. 12, 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stepped into a packed Mankato High School auditorium and announced that "the wind of change is blowing all over the world."

It was an unseasonably warm Sunday evening in this small south-central Minnesota city of 24,000, and Dr. King -- the 32-year-old president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- had emerged as the weekend's main attraction. His appearance at the local high school marked the third public address of the day, following two speeches at Centenary United Methodist Church, where members of the community overflowed the pews to learn about his vision for dismantling Jim Crow. 

"I regret so much that an extremely busy schedule prevents my staying longer," King told the crowd at the high school, now known as Mankato West. "This is sort of a dash-in, dash-out visit for me. But, I have certainly spent some rewarding moments here in Mankato. And I hope that circumstances will make it possible for me to return again."

Marking one of his earliest appearances in the state of Minnesota, King spoke to the mostly white audience at Mankato High for nearly an hour and previewed many of the themes he would champion throughout the rest of the 1960s. He urged his listeners to think globally, beyond the confines of their local communities, so that they could lift up humanity around the world. He denounced white supremacy, segregation, and discrimination. And he issued a plea for "nonviolent direct action," while also calling on federal lawmakers to pass civil rights legislation.

"All over this nation," King said, "we must develop men and women who will not rest, until segregation and discrimination have been removed from every area of our nation's life."

There are no photographs or video clips showing King's visit to Mankato in November 1961, and until recently, there was not much public awareness about the message he delivered to small-town Minnesota more than a half-century ago. 

That changed in 2018 when Minnesota State University, Mankato, uploaded a rare audio recording of King's Mankato High speech to its digital archive collections. The discovery of that audio led to a collaboration between Dr. Jameel Haque of Minnesota State Mankato's Kessel Peace Institute and local filmmaker Ryan Sturgis of True Facade Pictures. The film "MLK 11.12.61," released in 2022, helped to raise awareness and enhance the community's understanding of King's visit. 

"The message that I wanted the film to offer up," Sturgis said, "is that we kind of have an obligation to make an impact, because Martin Luther King came to our town, to our city."

Bukata Hayes, the current VP of Racial and Health Equity at Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, spent 15 years as the head of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and appeared in the film. To commemorate MLK Day on January 16, 2023, he sat down with KARE 11 for an interview to discuss the speech and its lasting legacy.

"Very few folks probably knew where Mankato, Minnesota, was, but for Dr. King, it was like, 'this is an opportunity," Hayes said. "That was such an important part of his legacy. He was willing to go wherever the message needed to go."

"The New Order"

That message had accelerated during the 1950s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, followed the next year by the murder of Emmett Till and the start of the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks challenged Jim Crow segregation laws on public transportation. King quickly established himself as a national civil rights figure, serving as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By the time King traveled to the Upper Midwest in 1961, the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and the efforts by the Freedom Riders to desegregate interstate buses had defined the early part of the new decade.

"Now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration," King proclaimed at Mankato High School in November 1961. "The old order is passing away. The new order of freedom and justice is coming into being."

Initially, King had declined multiple opportunities to speak in Mankato due to scheduling constraints, but ultimately he accepted the 1961 appearance through the Wesley Foundation at Minnesota State Mankato. During his 48-minute speech at Mankato High, King spoke directly to the crowd with a sense of urgency and seriousness. 

"We must all learn to live together as brothers," King said, "or we will all perish together as fools, which is the challenge of the hour."

But he also added a local flavor, referencing Mayo Clinic at one point and even managing to mix in some humor. Explaining the rise of commercial airplane travel, King retold a joke from comedian Bob Hope, who had said a passenger with hiccups could fly so quickly from Los Angeles to New York that they could "hic" in LA and "cup" in New York City.

"I know it isn't a usual thing for a preacher to be quoting Bob Hope," King said, "but I think he has adequately described this new jet age."

Mostly, though, King pleaded with the audience to support his movement. Two days earlier, in Seattle, King had delivered a similar speech, in which he said that "we face discrimination not only in the South. We still face it in New York, Los Angeles and many other cities and, yes, even in Seattle."

To his Mankato listeners, King stressed the importance of federal civil rights legislation and again called on President John F. Kennedy to take executive action outlawing segregation and housing discrimination. On the local level, King also said states and municipalities needed to deal with both housing and employment discrimination.

"These twin evils exist in every state in this union. And so there is need for legislation to do away with it. And also we need executive orders from the president of the United States," King said. "I was saying to a group earlier this afternoon that the president of the United States could all but end housing discrimination with a stroke of the pen."

He continued:

"May I say in conclusion that this problem will not be solved until enough people in America come to see that it is morally wrong to discriminate against another individual, to segregate an individual, and until enough people come to see that it is sinful. Segregation is evil because it substitutes an I-it relationship for the I-thou relationship. Relegates individuals and persons to the status of things. We must come to see this problem is not nearly a sectional problem, it's not nearly a Southern problem. It is a natural problem."


King's three speeches in Mankato drew enormous crowds. "It was Christmas and Easter rolled into one last Sunday," a student journalist for the College Reporter wrote the next week, "as Martin Luther King played to packed houses all over Mankato. At the services in Centenary Methodist Church, the ushers turned the 'worshippers' away--only standing room was available." During the interim period between the church appearance and the speech at the high school, King even mingled with the community at a luncheon and answered questions about his travels across the country.

In the film "MLK 11.12.61," director Ryan Sturgis interviewed two people who saw King speak in Mankato in 1961. One of the attendees, Steven Burns, said that King "wanted to engage every single person in every chair... he was just a commanding personality."

But Burns also told the filmmakers that King had bodyguards accompanying him to Mankato -- an important point considering that King had received many death threats across the country.

"The film delves into the fact," Sturgis said, "that he was not beloved during his time the way he is now."

As another journalist from the College Reporter wrote in November 1961, "Dr. King is sometimes classed as a rabble-rousing renegade in some of the papers. This reporter was highly impressed by his quiet, firm, unemotional approach to his audience. His convictions stood out by virtue of his sincere belief in his cause."

Despite opposition from segregationists who wanted to uphold the status quo, King stuck with this consistent messaging no matter where he spoke. In fact, while in Mankato, he uttered one of his more well-known phrases: "The time is always right to do right."

When Bukata Hayes first became aware of King's 1961 speeches in Mankato, he was struck by their relevance to today's times. 

"We're coming off our own spark point in history, the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning here in the metro, and I believe we are dutybound to do our part. We have to be part of the solution," Hayes said. "I believe it is our responsibility, as Minnesotans, to play a role in moving forward progress, and eliminating injustice and inequities in our community." 

Watch more local news:

Watch the latest local news from the Twin Cities in our YouTube playlist:

Before You Leave, Check This Out