January 21, 2014
By MELISSA REPKO
Bert Moore grew up in the all-white Park Cities of the 1950s. He attended all-white schools. The only black people he knew were housemaids.
As a student at Southern Methodist University, he invited the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to speak on campus.
At the time, the local lunch counter still banned black customers. A neighborhood laundry distributed racist pamphlets. SMU’s first black athlete was attacked and spit on.
Dr. King, already a Nobel Peace Prize winner, accepted the invitation.
His speech, delivered on March 17, 1966, is a seldom noted chapter of SMU history. University archives include one photo from the event, which was sponsored by the student government. In it, King stands at the podium, flanked by three students and his assistant.
For Moore, 69, now a dean of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, the day remains a highlight of his life.
“Whenever I get a chance,” he said, “I tell the story about being Martin Luther King’s chauffeur.”
King’s campus visit came just a few years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. When Moore arrived to pick up King at the Dallas Love Field terminal, he saw snipers on rooftops. King got into the backseat. Police cars drove in front and behind as they left the airport.
Moore, then a college senior, remembers asking King about the Watts riots in Los Angeles and the Chicago Freedom Movement, a new campaign to encourage civil rights activities in northern cities. He told King he’d been to Montgomery, Ala., with two busloads of SMU students and faculty for King’s third Selma-to-Montgomery march.
King answered his questions and asked Moore what he planned to do after college.
“It was the chance of a lifetime,” he said. “He sat in the back seat and I was in the front seat, like a real chauffeur.”
That afternoon, they drove up to SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium for King’s speech. The auditorium was still locked for security. A large crowd of white students and faculty gathered on the steps.
Moore worried about how they’d react. Would they yell and jeer? Would they boo?
“We got out of the car and it was just total silence,” he said, and paused. “I still kind of get chills.
“We started walking up the steps and the crowd just parted — and started clapping.”
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