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'Free at last, free at last': When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Indianapolis in 1958

Martin Luther King Jr.
Posted at 11:19 AM, Jan 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-17 13:05:55-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his work in the South, but his fight for equality and equity took him all over the world, including Indianapolis.

King first visited the city in the 1950s. In 1958 and ’59, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that he spoke at what were known as “Monster Meetings” at the Fall Creek Parkway YMCA.

Those meetings featured other national leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who spoke about progress being made across the country.

On Dec. 12, 1958, King also spoke in front of a crowd of 4,000 at the Cadle Tabernacle, a church at the northwest corner of New Jersey and Ohio streets in Indianapolis, for a program sponsored by the Senate Avenue YMCA.

“We were surprised to learn Dr. King was traveling alone,” a Recorder reporter wrote. “No bodyguard, not even a secretary. Just got on the plane and flew to Indianapolis.”

READ | Indianapolis Recorder archive, Dec. 20, 1958

The Recorder, which reported only two reporters attended the speech, noted the speech came one week after King’s first sermon since he suffered a near-fatal stabbing in September 1958, but “it was hard to detect signs of fatigue.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of Alabama, waves to the nearly 500 people waiting outside Harlem hospital in New York City on Oct. 3, 1958. Dr. King was stabbed on Sept. 20. (AP Photo)

“A new world is being born and the old world will die,” King told the audience, according to the Recorder. “We must be prepared for the new world to come. Segregation is nothing but slavery covered up with certain niceties and complexities. If our democracy is to live, segregation must die.”

King also urged his audience strive for “excellency.”

“If you are going to be a tree, be the best tree in the forest,” he said. “If you are going to be a leaf on that tree, be the very best leaf. Whatever you are going to be, be the best.

“Don't go out to be a good Negro teacher, a good Negro doctor or a good Negro laborer. But go out to do your job so well that no one, including the living, the dead and the unborn, could do it better.”

King continued his speech by talking about passive resistance, the necessity of refusing to meet hate with violence and that, “Love is a sure winner. Remember that as Christians, we are working with God.”

He ended with language similar to his famous “I Have A Dream“ speech he would give five years later at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Recorder reported:

“If we do it the way God wants us to do it,” the segregation fighter promised, “we will be able to sing with pride, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee.’ For freedom must ring from every mountain side.”

Dr King predicted the day when “all of God’s children – Jews, Negroes, whites and Indians – can join hands and sing ‘Free at last, free at last.’”

King later returned to Indianapolis in 1965 for a visit that was not announced to the public. It was around the same time as when one of his top officials, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, spoke in the city at St. John Baptist Church in the Martinsdale-Brightwood neighborhood.

That meeting was to help organize people to fight back against topics that remain relevant today: police brutality, poor housing and schools for Black Hoosiers and a lack of job opportunities.