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Recalling King's Contra Costa College visit

50 years ago students, faculty, locals gathered on campus for speech by civil rights leader

By Brian Boyle, news editor
On February 17, 2014

  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sits in the Contra Costa College Gymnasium on Feb. 14,1964, prior to delivering a rousing speech to a packed house. File photo / The Advocate

The March on Washington, D.C., by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 200,000 of his supporters in 1963 is remembered as one of the most iconic moments in civil rights history.
Yet many are not aware that a mere six months after that famous march, on Feb. 14, 1964 - 50 years ago this week - Dr. King visited the small city of San Pablo, and gave a speech in the local community college's gymnasium.
The then 35-year-old civil rights leader from Georgia spoke to more than 2,000 students and members of the East Bay that evening at Contra Costa College.
Tickets cost only $1, and allowed people to listen to one of the most influential men of the century speak during his first trip to Northern California.
King came to speak about the importance of the Civil Rights Act, and how imperative it was to pass it into law. His speech at CCC happened a mere three months after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
"I think the greatest tribute the nation can have for the late President Kennedy is to pass the Civil Rights Bill without a change of one word," King said to the crowd gathered in the Gymnasium, as quoted in the Feb. 21, 1964 edition of The Advocate.
King's charisma won over the crowd.
"He brought down the house," former student Ted Radke said. "The gym was packed. I've never seen a crowd so excited."
Former state assemblyman John T. Knox was able to spend time with King at the reception for him after his speech.
"He had a quiet determination and could look you right in the eye," Knox said, as quoted in the April 5, 2000 edition of The Advocate. "He really had an interest in what people had to say."
King came with a message of non-violence and of acceptance. King stressed how important it was to come together as a community in the struggle for civil rights.
"He focused on morals and principals above race and religion," Radke said. "He focused on what was good for the nation as a whole."
Yet, 50 years later, the nation is still struggling with inequality - be it racial, gender, or based upon sexual orientation.
"There is still racism in this country," African-American studies department Chairperson Carolyn Hodge said. "Things are just more subtly denied to people of color and to women."
One would expect, 50 years after he spoke here, that King's message of equality for all would be more widespread at CCC, yet many students are unaware that he even spoke here.
"I never knew that he (King) came to visit and speak here," nursing major Max Kamthai said. "That says something about this college, that he chose this college ahead of other ones in our area."
Hodge said, "We have this image in our minds that everything is perfect now, but it really isn't."
La Raza studies professor Agustîn Palacios said that in order to get an associate of arts degree, the type of degree community colleges offer, a student is not required to take a single ethnic studies course.
"We should learn more about each other's culture and history," Dr. Palacios said. "Not making any ethnic studies course a requirement for an A.A. is a mistake."
Hodge agreed with Palacios, saying cultural pluralism, or learning about other cultures, is important.
"By not taking any ethnic studies courses, our students here are missing out on a complete picture of our history," Hodge said.
She stressed how she makes her classes a "safe haven" where students can feel free to ask questions about other races and cultures.
King helped change the world in the 1950s and 1960s, until he was shot to death in Tennessee in 1968. His assassination would prove to be almost the prophetic end to the speech he made at CCC four years prior.
"Before the victory is won, some will be thrown in jail, others will face violent death," King told the crowd in the Gym, "but their deaths will not be in vain if we can bring about a period when the people in our country are no longer faced with the nightmare of racial living-death."
King laid his life down for racial and cultural equality. His struggle has served as the inspiration for many, and a powerful teaching tool for students across the nation.
"We need to keep his dream alive," liberal arts major Arlen Downing said. "He was a great leader for civil rights. It feels good to know I go to a college that King spoke at."
King's message of culture acceptance is especially important to members of the San Pablo community. One need only step onto campus to see how racially diverse it is.


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