Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lone Seattle visit left lasting legacy

Jan 18, 2016, 8:31 AM | Updated: 9:29 am
Marie Pierre Koban, 87, (left) and Margaret Hardin, 102, both saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak...
Marie Pierre Koban, 87, (left) and Margaret Hardin, 102, both saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak while the civil rights leader was alive. (Josh Kerns/KIRO Radio)
(Josh Kerns/KIRO Radio)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. only visited Seattle once his entire life.

But on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, those who were there and carried on his cause say it was an important bridge between Seattle and the rest of the nation in the fight for civil rights.

King arrived in Seattle on 8, 1961 at the invitation of his friend and local civil rights leader Rev. Samuel McKinney, the head of Mount Zion Baptist Church.

According to HistoryLink, McKinney’s church was too small, so he reached a deal with First Presbyterian Church downtown. But just weeks before, as the event was publicized, church leaders got cold feet and canceled.

“There was a lot of unhappiness and unrest within the church and in sections of the white community about him coming here because he was considered the most radical negro at that time,” McKinney said in an oral history recorded for HistoryLink.

Margaret Hardin knows all too well about that time.

I had the pleasure of visiting with her over the weekend at her home at Aegis Living on Capitol Hill.

Now, 102 1/2-years-old (she insists we point out), the New Orleans native grew up in the worst of the segregated South.

She moved to Seattle as a teen, where not as overt, segregation still ran strong.

“We couldn’t even go into the different restaurants and eat,” she said.

Margaret had become a skilled seamstress. But even though she was offered a job at the upscale I. Magnin department store downtown, they saw her skin color rather than her skills.

“You couldn’t get those jobs,” she said. “I don’t care how skilled you was (sic). But I could stay in the back and press.”

Still, despite growing calls for equal rights across the country, Margaret didn’t really think things would ever change. She admits she wasn’t giving much thought to the civil rights movement when Dr. King came to town.

King kicked off his visit with a speech to about 2,000 students at the University of Washington. He followed with speeches that night and the following at Temple De Hirsch, Garfield High School, and then the Eagles Auditorium.

According to HistoryLink, King stressed creative protest to combat segregation and discrimination and called on President J.F.K. to issue an executive order declaring all segregation unconstitutional.

Margaret admits she doesn’t remember much of what King said in his Seattle speeches, but she was inspired nonetheless.

“The three times that I saw him, he had no notes. And they weren’t the same speeches. He just talked,” she recalled.

While King’s visit lasted just two days, Margaret says it noticeably kick started the civil rights movement in Seattle.

It also stirred plenty of hate. She recounts how Reverend McKinney and two other area church leaders stepped up their activism and inspired others to follow – both black and white. So much so that Margaret says they became targets.

“Because they were so powerful, the three of them, they [would-be assassins] made different attempts on their lives. So they [church leaders] finally sent my pastor away because he had three misses, and they said that’s too much,” Margaret recalled.

Still, King’s visit was instrumental in helping make things at least a little better, she says.

“Some things did change. All things didn’t change, but some things changed for the better after he left,” she said.

Perhaps the most important change was in the city’s schools – Seattle became one of the most progressive when it came to equality in the classroom – and making sure Central Area school offered the same opportunities as all the others around the city, according to Margaret.

But all these years later, she complains about what many other parents do: that we’re still not doing enough – whether for our schools or society in general.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she hopes people remember many of the struggles fought on that day in Seattle back in 1961.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lone Seattle visit left lasting legacy