BUFFALO, N.Y. -- On Feb. 16, popular author and broadcast
journalist Soledad O'Brien will deliver the University at Buffalo's
36th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Lecture at
Buffalo's Kleinhans Music Hall. Her talk comes 45 years after King
himself addressed an audience at Kleinhans at the invitation of the
UB Graduate Student Association (GSA).
That address, on Nov. 9, 1967, five months before his
assassination, was titled "The Future of Integration," and was
presented before an audience of about 2,100 in Buffalo. King spoke
extemporaneously that day, not only about the importance of
education and voting to the black community, and to the racial
violence then raking the country, but to a topic of great
importance to his UB sponsors -- his opposition to the Vietnam
The UB Archives, which maintain the university's historical
records, include a number of photos taken at Kleinhans that evening
and an audio cassette of King's talk, as well as correspondence
regarding plans for King's appearance, the formal invitation to
King from the UB GSA, and press clippings from The Buffalo News,
the Challenger and other press sources.
We celebrate King as a hero today, a secular saint. But there
were 700 empty seats in Kleinhans that night, in part because his
strong opposition to the war marked him as "radical" and
"communist" in the parlance of the day. As a result, many in the
community reviled him, whether they understood his position or
Joseph Nechasek, PhD, one of the UB GSA board members who hosted
King's visit to Buffalo, recalls that, "A lot of Buffalo
politicians and civic leaders declined to attend the talk. I don't
remember an outpouring of support from the black community or from
UB, either." In fact, leading black Baptist ministers did stay
home, objecting to the contentiousness of King's position that
America was more concerned with winning "an ill-considered and
unjust war...than in winning the war against poverty at home."
In fact, King had publicly broken with the Johnson
administration over its Vietnam policies in a now-famous April 4,
1967, speech to an audience of clergy at New York City's Riverside
"I think the April 4 Riverside Church talk actually was his
greatest speech," says John Marciano, EdD, the second host from the
UB GSA executive board. Marciano was a founding member of the UB
chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the main
icons of America's New Left. Since 1965, Marciano had been a strong
opponent of the war. In fact, he had marched with King in an
anti-war demonstration in New York City.
Nechasek, says, "King gave many significant talks throughout his
career, but the speech in Buffalo wasn't a very powerful example.
It wasn't a rousing, stand-up-and-cheer speech. I thought it was
academic; less exciting than prior speeches.
"But King had an amazing ability to fit himself to the
audience," Nechasek says. "He could preach in a church, give a
major Washington speech, argue with LBJ, come to Buffalo and speak
to students. So regardless of the size of the audience or the
low-key nature of the speech, it was a very exciting time for
"King had no handlers, no personal security," says Nechasek,
"although I think every black police officer in town was there to
"One reason we invited him," he recalls, "is because the core of
the GSA were people who had grown up into an anti-war atmosphere
and were well aware of King's position on Vietnam as well as on
race, poverty and other significant social justice issues. We
supported him completely."
Marciano agrees that the 1967 King was a much more radical
figure than he previously had been.
"His turn to the left," Marciano points out, "caused him to be
vilified by major publications -- The New York Times, Newsweek --
and by many national political leaders. We discussed this with him
when he was here."
King's anti-war stance was prescient. After the Tet Offensive,
only two months later, opposition to the Vietnam War would explode
and the conflict eventually would be derailed, largely because of
the populist uprising against it. King was assassinated in April of
1968, however, and would not live to see that.
Marciano says, "We were so excited to have him come here. We
peppered him with questions and he answered all of them," he says.
"I remember him as a quiet, thoughtful man who was gracious and
patient. He was a very impressive person."
Former Buffalo Common Council President George K. Arthur, who
met with the civil rights leader that day, said recently that
King's anti-war position was persistent and consistent.
"If he were alive today," Arthur said, "he would be saying,
'Let's get the hell out of Afghanistan.'"
Another message King delivered on Nov. 9 is "the ballot is one
of the keys to the door of freedom" and that that those who have no
vote are powerless. Black voters, he said, should use their vote to
move their agenda forward and get out of their economic trap.
And, as Arthur says, "Today there are more blacks in key
political positions across the country because of the ballot and
Dr. King's teachings."
King also spoke in Buffalo in defense of non-violence. Eight
race riots had occurred in the U.S. between 1964 and 1967 and 11
more erupted in the summer of 1967, including one in Buffalo. While
condemning the violence, King vigorously attacked conditions that
"Violent revolts grow out of revolting living conditions," he
said, "Violence is the language of the unheard." Summer riots, he
said, are caused by "winters of delay" and underscored the point
that "Negroes did not create" slavery, slums or unemployment. King
questioned whether the nation would ever defeat poverty or save its
After King's death came the deluge of civil rights court cases
and physical battles -- 100 more race riots would erupt in mid-1968
-- as well as even more aggressive opposition to the war and a
deeper realization of King's power as an icon of social
One member of the Buffalo audience that night, longtime Western
New York community activist Ruth Bryant, retired associate dean of
the UB School of Architecture and Planning, says, "You could feel
his power that evening, his greatness. He filled the room. He
inspired us all." Certainly this was true, but King's death
heralded his apotheosis.
He had already won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he received a
post-mortem Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Margaret Sanger
Award, even a 1972 Grammy Award (for his recorded speech "Why I
Oppose the War in Vietnam") and hundreds of other honors over the
ensuing years. His boyhood home became a national historic site,
thousands of civic monuments bear his name and Martin Luther King
Day is a national holiday, celebrated on a date near his Jan. 15
In 1976, UB became part of that process when it inaugurated the
Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Lecture with a talk by George
Arthur. Speakers of national and international stature have
followed: Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Wangari Maathai, Danny
Glover and Felix Justice, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law
Center, King's close friend Harry Belafonte Jr., Johnnie Cochran
Jr., Tavis Smiley, Sidney Poitier, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, rapper
KRS-ONE, Cornel West and many more distinguished jurists, authors,
social activists, scholars, musicians and actors, as well as two of
King's children, Rev. Bernice King and Martin Luther King III. And
later this month, CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien.
The UB series has insured that King's philosophy and message to
his nation and the world remains alive in this community and is
loudly and clearly applied to contemporary conditions and issues
that affect us all, just as King's philosophy served as a call to
action to many who heard him speak in Buffalo more than four
John Marciano, now a professor emeritus at SUNY Cortland, for
example, has spent four decades as a prominent political activist,
author, teacher and scholar in the antiwar/social justice movement.
He is the author of "Lessons of the Vietnam War" and is noted for
teaching "The People's History of the United States," by his
friend, the late historian and activist Howard Zinn.
Joe Nechasek, later a professor and dean of the College of
Allied Health and Nursing at the University of Bridgeport, also has
remained an advocate for social justice, addressing in particular,
racial and ethnic barriers in health care systems.
Ruth Bryant, who was in her 20s in 1967, later became president
of the UB Minority Staff Association, and the first person of color
to staff the UB Professional Staff Senate. She was a founding
member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and for decades
has been a highly respected and deeply committed community and
political activist on many fronts in Buffalo and Western New