2016 Archives

SMU Alums Remember Dinner with Martin Luther King, Jr.

The civil rights leader spoke at SMU on March 17, 1966
Charles Cox wrote to his mother about the experience

March 17, 2016

On March 17, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., joined 20 SMU students and administrators for a casual dinner after he spoke to nearly 3,000 guests at SMU's McFarlin Auditorium. No one remembers what was on the menu, or exactly who attended, but two former students have never forgotten the warmth, humility and sense of humor they saw King display at the dinner catered by SMU Food Service in a small meeting room in what was then the Umphrey Lee Student Center.

Retired United Methodist minister Charles Cox introduced Dr. King to the standing-room only crowd that day after picking up him at Love Field earlier in the day with fellow student Bert Moore. Both were officers in the SMU Student's Association.

"The auditorium had never been so full," Cox said. "He spoke for 55 minutes extemporaneously about "The Future of Integration"- I had told him of his speech topic just five minutes before his speech. His talk was received very enthusiastically. He told me he was very happy and pleased with his reception and he certainly had a right to be."

Cox remembers waiting with the others after the speech for King to arrive at the dinner. Finally, former SMU dean of students Fred Bryson sent Cox to his office where King was making a phone call.

"It was a total moment of relaxation for Dr. King," Cox remembers. "He had his feet propped on the desk and was talking on the phone with someone he clearly knew well. He lived under so much stress and received constant death threats. I went back to the meeting room and we waited."

"I wish more people could meet him personally," Cox wrote his mother in Wisconsin on March 20. "He has a very warm, sincere personality and a fine sense of humor which will save any leader from 'egomania.'"

John Hill '64, vice chair and managing director of First Reserve in New York, and his wife Marilynn Wood Hill '63, author and historian, also attended the dinner. As president of the SMU Students' Association in 1963-64, Hill invited Dr. King to speak at SMU for the first time, but at the advice of the Dallas mayor, police, the FBI and SMU President Willis Tate, the invitation was rescinded.

"I talked it over with Andrew Young," Hill remembers. "He got it immediately. They took death threats seriously in Dallas at that time."

On that spring evening in 1966, John was a Perkins School of Theology graduate student and Marilynn was an SMU history graduate student. This time SMU Student Association vice president Bert Moore extended the invitation to Dr. King and he accepted, making SMU one of only two predominantly white southern universities to host King.

"Dr. King was warm and engaging," Hill said. "He was mesmerizing and truly someone special, but at the dinner he seemed like he was one of us."


Dear Mother, The biggest event of the year occurred this week . . .

March 20

. . . as far as I'm concerned, with the visit of Martin Luther King. He was here for just six hours but they were packed full of meetings and speeches. There were extremely tight security precautions taken throughout his visit. Policemen accompanied him everywhere and there will (sic) all kinds of plainclothesmen around, too. 

Bert and I met him at 1:00 P.M. at the airport along with all the cameraman and reporters who followed him around all day— he went immediately to deliver a speech to the Dallas Pastors' Assn. After his hour-long speech we went immediately to SMU — Bert, I, King and his aide in one car and security cars in front and back of us. We went straight to our McFarlin Auditorium and to a meeting in a third floor suite with Social Concerns Committee of Perkins' Seminary. 

Then came a press conference followed by a little break before his speech. The auditorium had never been so full — there were at least100 people standing and both balconies were filled up. There had been rumors of a "prophetess" predicting that King would be shot on the SMU campus — these rumors were all over Dallas and the prediction had supposedly been made by the woman who predicted Kennedy's death. Consequently, there was a great deal of tension — I introduced him — then he spoke for 55 minutes extemporaneously about 'The Future of Integration" — I had told him of his speech topic just five minutes before his speech. 

He gave a really wonderful talk — well-organized and very articulately spoken. He is very intelligent besides having a great charismatic ability to lead and work on emotions. His talk was received very enthusiastically by the crowd of about 2,800. He told me that he was very pleased and happy with his reception and he certainly had a right to be. I wish that more people could meet the man personally — what appears to the public during speeches and press topics only a collection of ideas and opinions — he has a very warm, sincere personality and a fine sense of humor which will save any leader from "egomania." After the speech was a reception for the SMU Student Senate and the Student gov't of Bishop College (an all-Negro college in Dallas.) 

Following this was a dinner with President Tate and a few faculty and students. He left at 7:00 P.M. and I was completely drained and worn out. It was so exciting to be with him that long a time, to lead him everywhere and get to talk with him personally. He was actually rather tired because he'd been in Chicago Tuesday, Connecticut Wednesday, and then Dallas Thursday. 

I'll never forget the experience — I can't imagine another school where I'd have had the opportunities I've had down here.

(The rest of letter is not about the King visit. Sent to my mother in Monroe, Wisconsin — I was 20 years old, in my junior year at SMU)

Love,

Charles