SMU alumni remember a visit by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Reposted from The Dallas Morning News, Jan. 18, 2014, by Melissa Repko, staff writer

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.”

Racism ‘was pervasive’

In the mid-’60s, the civil rights struggle was sweeping the country but was slow to arrive at SMU’s campus. The student body was mostly Southern, white and well-to-do, said retired English professor Kenneth Shields, 82, who began at SMU in 1961.

Few black students were enrolled at SMU, and most of them lived off campus. Some businesses were hostile to black customers. At a 24-hour café, Shields would hear them order meals through the lattice of the back door.

Racism “was pervasive and taken for granted,” he said. “There was no sense that this was wrong. It was, ‘This is always the way we’ve done things.’”

A pocket of students, including several from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, were engaged in promoting civil rights and led protests near campus. When they held a sit-in at the University Pharmacy lunch counter, the owner called a pesticide company and it filled the pharmacy with fumes, according to Dallas Morning News archives.

Jerry LeVias, SMU’s first black athlete, said he came to campus in 1965 to get a college education, not to be a trailblazer. The Beaumont football star soon discovered he was cast in the role anyway.

The first week of football practice, a teammate jumped on LeVias’ back, cracked two ribs and spit on his face. LeVias’ white roommate moved out of their dorm room.

Each day, LeVias said the Serenity Prayer before he began his lonely walk across campus. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can …

Classmates bullied him on the sidewalks. No one would sit by him in class.

“That part of my life, I wish I could forget,” LeVias, 67, said Friday from his home in Houston.

Some students, including Moore, were criticized for supporting equal rights. When Moore ran for student body vice president, he saw posters on fraternity bulletin boards saying, “Bert Moore is an Integrationist.” With votes from the more progressive Perkins School of Theology, he managed to win anyway.

In his letter to King, Moore told him that students — and the city of Dallas — needed a call to action. He invited him as a guest lecturer on behalf of the student government.

King responded with a letter saying he was hesitant to accept.

He’d been invited to campus once before and the offer had been rescinded. Moore met with University President Willis Tate to get a guarantee. With Tate’s reassurance, King accepted the invitation in a typed letter addressed to Moore. They scheduled the speech for March 17, 1966.

For LeVias, who was in the middle of his freshman year, March 17 was another day of doubts. He was the only black athlete on campus and the first black scholarship athlete in the old Southwest Conference. SMU’s football team had begun spring practice, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay.

“I just had to survive,” he said. “I was in survival mode.”

President Tate invited him to a meeting near McFarlin Auditorium. When LeVias entered the room, King was standing there and Tate left the two of them alone.

King asked the young football player how things were going at SMU, but he already seemed to know the answer, LeVias recalled. King offered him a piece of advice.

“He said, ‘There’s one thing you must do. Always keep your emotions in control. There are going to be a lot of situations where you are going to want to react.’”

“To meet him was a highlight of my life and even more so as time and years passed,” LeVias said. “It was sort of like being mentored by one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

In SMU’s 2,700-seat auditorium, King delivered a speech to a standing-room-only audience. The event was closed to the public, but faculty and students filled the balcony and spilled into the aisles. Moore saw a few black employees in groundskeeper uniforms.

In the front row were SMU trustees, including Bill Clements, who would one day be Texas governor.

“There is a need to stand up,” King said in the speech recorded by an audience member. “There is a need for all people of good will in this nation to become involved participants, for all too long we have had silent onlookers. But now there must be more involved participants to solve this problem and get rid of this one huge wrong of our nation.”

Student senator Charles Cox, one of three students on the stage, said King’s voice “just mesmerized you.”

“I remember being so incredibly impressed with his speaking abilities,” said Cox, 68, a retired Methodist minister. “He spoke for about 60 minutes, and he didn’t have a single note.”

By the end of the speech, a tearful Clements embraced Tate and told him that if SMU got blowback to send any complaints to him, Shields said.

Moore spent much of his career researching human emotions and the science of empathy. He keeps King’s signed letter in a lockbox in his home. Sometimes, he takes it down to read it again.

About a year ago, one of Moore’s fellow faculty members began researching King’s visits to Dallas. The faculty member searched through the digital archives of the King Center in Atlanta. He discovered a letter with Bert Moore’s name at the bottom.

“He came and asked, ‘Is this you?’” Moore said. “And so I talked to him about it.”

Moore learned his typed invitation had been filed away, preserved as an important document, a piece of civil rights history.