On a raw, cold night in mid-March of 1968, I drove with my mother to Grosse Pointe High School (now G.P. South) to attend a very unusual event in that community. Its uniqueness was evidenced by the small but very vocal group from Breakthrough, a radical-right political protest organization based in Detroit, who were on the sidewalks across from the school. Angry protest demonstrations of any political stripe were unheard of in that quiet, well-to-do suburb. This was going to be a strange night in Grosse Pointe.
What had drawn those angry demonstrators to that particular location on that night was the person who was scheduled to speak inside the school: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
In the eyes of Breakthrough's founder Donald Lobsinger, King was a Communist traitor and agitator who was sabotaging our military efforts in Vietnam. In the eyes of the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council, the group that had extended the invitation, King was a figure of major importance with particular relevance to the area, which had been convulsed by the Detroit riots the previous summer.
Having grown up in a very liberal household with a deep commitment to the cause of civil rights, our family sympathies with King and support for the civil rights movement was a distinctly minority opinion in the all-white and very conservative Grosse Pointe of that time.
I was only 15, and didn't know what to expect inside, but my mother was nervous about the possibility of violence, and that concern was echoed by the Grosse Pointe chief of police, who basically sat in King's lap as a protective measure during their car ride to the school.
The auditorium was packed, and King delivered a speech that concentrated on familiar themes that he had made the centerpiece of his campaign for civil rights since the 1950s. Breakthrough members interrupted King's speech several times with loud heckling from the crowd, but the most memorable occurence was when a young man began hectoring King about Vietnam. The atmosphere inside the auditorium was already very tense due to the previous outbursts, but King did something amazing to me: he stopped his speech, and invited the guy up onto the stage and gave him the microphone to state his views. He identified himself as a U.S. Naval veteran and made a short rambling statement stating his opposition to Communism. King's non-confrontational approach to him seemed to take the wind out of his sails, and defused what had been a potentially combustible moment.
The rest of the speech proceeded without further incident, and by the time we were making our way to our car, the demonstrators from Breakthrough were gone.
Just three weeks later, King was murdered in Memphis. That event was awful enough, but it was particularly so for my mother and me since we'd just seen him with our own eyes. The unrest his assassination sparked across the country was sadly predictable, and soon I was going to have a small personal taste of the depth of the local hatred for King.
One afternoon close to the end of the school year I was hanging out at the house of a girl I'd thought was pretty hot, and then the conversation randomly turned to King and the fact that I'd attended his speech in Grosse Pointe. She then announced that she was glad he'd been killed since he was a Communist traitor. I was no stranger to the casual racism that was routinely expressed by the people I grew up with in Grosse Pointe and Detroit, but to hear somebody who seemed perfectly nice and normal state their approval of murder so baldly and unapologetically to me was mind-boggling.
Her father then entered the room and then started ranting about how King was a subversive trying to overthrow the government for the Communists. I got the hell out of there since he seemed unhinged. She didn't seem quite so hot any more to me, either.
Given my family's interest in politics and support for the civil rights movement, I was very familiar with the resistance of southern politicians to integration, especially at the university level. Governor George Wallace's symbolic "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" in 1962 in opposition to integrating Alabama was for my Missouri-born parents a symbol of the backwardness of racial attitudes that were part of their own early lives, and it seemed just plain crazy to me that anybody could be so opposed to allowing black Americans to attend the same universities as white Americans.
(Yes, there was plenty of virulent racism in the north back then too, but it didn't have nearly the amount of overt and unapologetic institutional support from politicians and elected officials that it did across the south.)
By that time I was also a young college football fan, and as my grandfather had attended UM during Yost's first four years, rooting for Michigan was natural in our house. While the UM teams then were still predominantly white, they did have notable black players, and I was well aware of the integrated Southern Cal teams of that era since the Big Ten played the Pac 8 in the Rose Bowl each year. It seemed ridiculous to me that it wasn't until the late 1960s and early '70s that the major teams in the south became integrated.
For basic info on King's Grosse Pointe speech:
For information about the integration of major college football: