In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Southern Methodist University, at the invitation of the student senate. His brief stop in Dallas left a strong impression on Charles Cox, a junior at SMU at the time of King's visit.
The student body of Southern Methodist University was mostly white, wealthy, and southern in 1966.
“It was just at the time that these walls were being broken down. And of course it wasn’t welcomed by everybody," Cox said. He remembers his campus being roiled by the civil rights movement.
"There were some significant debates on the campus, and people took sides,” he said.
Cox was a member of the student senate that invited Dr. King to address the campus. He and his friend picked up Dr. King at the airport. Riding in the car with Dr. King was thrilling for the young student. “Oh my goodness -- just the excitement of meeting a Nobel prize winner," Cox recalled. "He wasn’t just a famous person who gives a great speech, but [he had] all this charisma and natural charm.”
'An Eloquence That Was Remarkable'
Dr. King had been scheduled to speak at SMU before, but the invitation was rescinded out of fear for his safety in Dallas, the city where John F. Kennedy had been assassinated a few years earlier. Nearly 3,000 people packed into the McFarlin Auditorium to hear King, many standing in the back. Cox gave King a brief introduction, and then handed over the podium.
“He had no notes," Cox recalled. "He spoke for 55 minutes. I gave him the title of his speech five minutes before he spoke. But he was so gifted, he didn’t need notes. He had an eloquence that was remarkable.”
By 1966, King had seen the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act signed into law. His focus had partly shifted from fighting segregation to fighting poverty.
'The Basic Necessities Of Life'
“It is necessary to develop massive training programs. It is necessary to lift the minimum wage and extend the coverage so that all of God’s children will have the basic necessities of life," King said that day. "We live in a great nation, the greatest nation, the richest nation on the face of the earth, and I submit this afternoon that any nation that can spend billions of dollars to put a man on the moon can spend billions of dollars to put a man on his own two feet here on earth."
King received a standing ovation from the crowd, which included many SMU workers in groundskeepers uniforms.
“He stirred within me the feeling of a fight for justice, and to break down the walls of segregation and to give all people in our country an opportunity for a good life,” Cox said.
King left Dallas that evening, to continue his campaign for fair housing in Chicago. When he was assassinated two years later, Cox was on his way to becoming a United Methodist minister.
He will celebrate the Martin Luther King Holiday by marching in an SMU parade, to honor Dr. King’s legacy and the day almost 50 years ago when their paths crossed.