On March 6, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his one and only trip to Orlando to meet with community leaders and give a speech at Tinker Field. With the help of Jim Perry’s handwritten account of the Civil Rights movement in Orlando, it is possible to piece together a narrative surrounding Dr. King’s visit. Jim Perry was the NAACP Youth Council president at the time of Dr. King’s visit and was heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement from 1958 to 1980.
When progress to end segregation stalled for Orlando in 1964, The Rev. Curtis J. Jackson, pastor at the Shiloh Baptist Church and NAACP Youth Council adviser, told Perry and the rest of the council that if the City of Orlando refused to change, he’d be happy to invite his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. down. Jackson wasn’t bluffing; he and Dr. King attended Morehouse College together.
In fact, Jackson had already invited Dr. King to Orlando once before. In a Sept. 7, 1962, letter to Jackson, Dr. King had to regretfully decline the invitation to visit in January of 1963 due to engagements in Washington and Oakland, California. In that letter, Dr. King mentions that he hopes “it will be possible to serve you on some other occasion.”
That “other occasion” had arrived. With Civil Rights leaders making no progress with the city, Rev. Jackson contacted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Perry’s notes, “Everyone was surprised because he was so busy. Word quickly spread that Rev. Martin Luther King was coming to Orlando.”
In addition to speaking at a rally, Dr. King was scheduled to run a workshop at the Shiloh Baptist Church. According to a March 5, 1964, Orlando Evening Star article, Rev. Jackson and Terry Streets, the area president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, expected over 200 ministers from the black community throughout Florida to attend. The workshop was split into two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Between the two sessions, Dr. King planned to have a word with the mayor.
Mayor Bob Carr, Dr. King, and a delegation from the black community met that afternoon at City Hall. Perry describes the meeting as having “very tuff [sic] and frank talk of [the] condition[s] in Orlando. Rev. King made [it] clear that he would come back if things did not change in Orlando. Mayor Bob Carr ask[ed] Rev. King to give him time, that he would put together a Bi-Racial Committee to solve problems and end segregation in the city.” Shortly after this visit, Mayor Carr did form a biracial committee and began tackling some of the community’s problems.
That night, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the pitcher’s mound at Tinker Field to a crowd of about 2,000. For members of the black community, the rally marked the first time ever sitting in the “whites only” grandstand. Many residents in Orlando can still recall from first-hand experience what Perry described as “a powerful speech that moved everyone.”
Whitney Broadaway is the Collections Manager at the Orange County Regional History Center.