King’s 1968 speech returns to South

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 10, 2017

 Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education Trustee Ahmed Ismail was a sophomore at Grosse Pointe South High School when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presented his speech, “The Other America,” March 4, 1968. The Grosse Pointe-Harper Woods Branch of the NAACP will play an audio tape of the speech 1-4 p.m. Jan 14.

Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education Trustee Ahmed Ismail was a sophomore at Grosse Pointe South High School when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presented his speech, “The Other America,” March 4, 1968. The Grosse Pointe-Harper Woods Branch of the NAACP will play an audio tape of the speech 1-4 p.m. Jan 14.

Photo by Ahmed Ismail

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at a podium inside the Grosse Pointe South High School gymnasium, speaking to a crowd of about 2,700 people.

The civil rights leader presented a speech known as “The Other America” at the school March 14, 1968. Three weeks later, on April 4, King was shot and killed while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day two days later, the Grosse Pointe-Harper Woods Branch of the NAACP will play an audio tape of the speech that King gave in 1968 at South High School Jan 14.

Community members who would like to relive this piece of history are invited to listen to the speech, which will begin playing at 1 p.m. NAACP Education Committee member Stewart McMillin said that “The Other America” is about 90 minutes in length. He said organizers will run the event from 1 to 4 p.m. to allow time for discussion among those who attend this Saturday.  

South High School is located at 11 Grosse Pointe Blvd. in Grosse Pointe Farms. Admission is free, and donations to the NAACP are welcome. McMillin said the reason for bringing back the speech is “just to remind people this happened.”

McMillin, a retired East Detroit High School social studies teacher, did not attend the event in 1968, but he was able to get an audio tape a few days later and has listened to it over the years. McMillin, who operates McMillin Tours at www.mcmillintours.com, always remembers where he was when news of King’s assassination was announced.

“I was turning left on Nine Mile coming off the expressway going to basketball practice at the East Detroit gym,” McMillin said. “He was such a young man. He was so smart and eloquent and to be taken away at that time.”

Retired East Detroit Public Schools educator Evelyn Fergle and her husband, Donald — members of the Grosse Pointe Congregational Church in Grosse Pointe Farms — went to South in 1968 to hear King speak.

“It was in the paper he was coming,” said Fergle, who wanted “to know more about what he stood for. I had no actual bias. I didn’t feel he was radical.

“It was pretty much packed,” Fergle, 85, said of the crowd. “We bought our tickets for $2 or $3 at the time.”

The Fergles, former residents of St. Clair Shores and Grosse Pointe Woods, now reside in Clarkston. Hearing King’s speech was a challenge because of the protesters among the crowd.

“He would start to talk and someone would shout something. It was so orchestrated,” Fergle said. “You knew they were there to disrupt him. Whether the person agreed with his views or not, I felt my rights were violated. You paid money to hear him. It was a shame. He was a man who deserved our attention whether you agreed with him or not. I felt it was unfair.”

“Dr. King (spoke) under duress,” McMillin said. “The protesters were carrying signs and yelling, ‘Boo.’ It wasn’t very peaceful.”

Donald Lobsinger, of St. Clair Shores, organized the demonstration with the group Breakthrough. The organization passed out leaflets to let the community know ahead of time about its plan to protest King’s visit.

“It was snowy. It was bitter cold,” Lobsinger said. “We had about 100 protesters outside.”

Race, he said, was not the reason behind the demonstration.

“It had absolutely nothing to do with the color of his skin,” Lobsinger, 82, said. “We were an anti-communist organization. We were protesting against King because of his communist affiliations. He supported the communists our soldiers were fighting in Vietnam.”

According to various historical sources, King did speak out against the Vietnam War. During King’s visit to South, Lobsinger said he and another Breakthrough member were inside the school.

“We were standing by the side aisle. We came back to the middle aisle. During a key moment in his speech, I turned, pointed at him and shouted at the top of my lungs, ‘Traitor,’” Lobsinger said. “That’s what he was.”

The two Breakthrough members then left the gymnasium.

“We walked out on our own accord,” Lobsinger said. “There was no police escort or anything else.”

Among those in the audience was current Grosse Pointe Public School System board member Ahmed Ismail. The school board trustee was a sophomore at South at the time and was given a press pass to photograph King’s presentation.

“I can’t remember if I was taking it for the newspaper or the yearbook,” Ismail said. “I remember FBI being all over the place. People were checking IDs. I have never seen a gym so secure. It was full to the brim. It was a pretty crazy evening.”

Ismail said that there were death threats made against those who organized the program. The teenager didn’t have a zoom lens and had to get as close as he could to King as he spoke.

“It was a huge thing for Martin Luther King to come to Grosse Pointe to speak,” Ismail remembered. “It was amazing. I was a little kid then. It was a privilege to be there. What an electrifying speaker.”

Unfortunately, Ismail lost the film from the photos he took of King’s visit. A teacher found the film in the trash, retrieved it and years later returned it to Ismail while at a board meeting.

News of King’s death the following month felt “almost surreal” to Ismail.

“This really didn’t happen, did it?” he thought.

For more information about the local NAACP chapter, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/gphwnaacp.