Racial equity progress slow decades after MLK visited Buffalo

Apr 4, 2018

Just five months before Martin Luther King was assassinated, he visited Buffalo. It was a tense time for race relations, here and across America, but King’s words resonate today.


King spoke to a crowd at Kleinhans Music Hall back in November of 1967. It was one of the last major speeches Doctor Martin Luther King Junior made before his assassination on April 4, 1968.

And the theme, was the future of integration.

“We’ve have come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go before racial justice is a reality in our nation," he said in his speech.

Ruth Bryant was there that night. She’s a retired assistant dean  at the UB School of Architecture and Planning.

"I know where I was sitting at Kleinhans, because I was stage left," she said. "He impressive, this quiet giant. And you knew that this was greatness that you were experiencing."

George Arthur also was there. At the time he was the fifth ward supervisor. Later, he served on the City Council.

Arthur and other local leaders met with King in a private room. And he accompanied King to the airport when the speech was over.

“It was a real honor. The amazing thing is, that with all of his awards and all of everything else he was a down to earth person," he said.

Now, a half-century after King’s death, both Bryant and Arthur agree that King’s dream still is --- just that—a dream.

There are big gaps between blacks and whites on many important issues – from unemployment to school achievement. Incarceration rates is another problem.

According to the PEW Research Group, around 13 hundred per one hundred thousand black men were incarcerated in the 1960s. That rate nearly tripled by the mid-2000s.

"It's worse," said Wornie Reed, the Director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center, which is located on the Virginia Tech campus.

He says, at one time it seemed like race relations were starting to go in a positive direction.

In early 1968, the Kerner Report warned that America was "moving toward two societies, one black, and one white— separate and unequal."

But then, he says things seemed to take a turn for the worse after King’s death.

"They gave a diagnosis of America, but the patient refused to take the medicine," he said. "Instead they began to blame the victim. And, so the racism has gone unabated.”

Reed says the solution to race relations lies in, not trying to change hearts and minds, but policies and practices.

“I quote no less an authority of Martin Luther King Jr.....'The government cannot make my neighbor love me, but we are asking for the government to keep my neighbor from killing me.”

Bryant says today’s movement for racial justice is a good start, but more structure is needed, like when King was leading the way. 

“There’s not one voice, like his time, he was the voice and people rallied behind him," she said. "It’s ok to have different opinions, but there can’t be all these leaders there has to be some followers."

Arthur sees signs that the nation – as King said in Buffalo – has a long way to go.

“I think that racism, which has been hidden for number of years in certain parts of America, is coming out. That’s why you see, in places like, I think it was Charlottesville, the kkk is no longer afraid."

Will it get worse, before it gets better?

“Yes. I do. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better," Arthur said. "That’s sad to say, I hate to say it, but all of the indications that I see.”

But the good thing, he says, is that there are a lot of people who are willing to work towards improving race relations.