50 years later, Montreat welcomes MLK back

Paul Clark

T he photo is such a snapshot of the times - Martin Luther King being escorted into Anderson Auditorium in Montreat with a police escort.

King had recently arrived from Los Angeles, where he’d tried to quell race riots in Watts. The Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race and other criteria, had been signed into law the year before. The country was on edge, and nerves were raw.

The photo, taken Aug. 21, 1965, shows a determined King walking into the auditorium. He was the keynote speaker of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.’s Christian Action Conference on the topic of “The Church and Civil Rights.” King’s speech was titled “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension,” a title that summed up the times.

In celebration of that historic moment in the conference center’s history and of the significance of King’s work and sacrifice, the Montreat Conference Center is holding a conference this weekend, exactly 50 years after King’s speech there. More than 700 people are coming from around the country for “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda,” a three-day event meant to help participants rededicate themselves to King’s vision.

Speakers include Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Leonard Pitts, U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis and N.C. NAACP president the Rev. William Barber (for a schedule, visit

Coinciding with the opening of the conference is a new exhibit by the Presbyterian Heritage Center at Montreat, “Civil Rights & Presbyterians.” Featuring rare audio and video clips of King, the exhibit outlines the 250-year struggle by blacks and American Indians to obtain their rights. (The Presbyterian Heritage Center, which doesn’t charge admission, is at 318 Georgia Terrace in Montreat at Lake Susan and Assembly Drive.)

King approached Anderson Auditorium on that August day in 1965 while a huge crowd waited inside. Ron Vinson, executive director of Presbyterian Heritage Center, said archives indicate the auditorium may have exceeded its 1,750 capacity.

The restlessness and tension the crowd may have felt was reflected in some of the letters organizers received about King’s impending visit. Not everyone welcomed the activist in Montreat, Vinson said. King may have won the Nobel Peace Prize the previous year, but a lot of people did not like his work on behalf of minorities.

“Why can’t Montreat be left alone in its refinement, culture and elegance?” one person wrote in a letter that is part of the exhibit at the heritage center. There had been a movement within the church General Assembly to rescind King’s invitation to the Montreat conference. The Assembly defeated the proposal by a four-to-one margin, Vinson said.

King’s words echoed inside Anderson Auditorium into history.

“I know that the days ahead are difficult,” he told the crowd. “We still have some dark, difficult and agonizing moments. But I still have faith in America. I love this nation. And I believe we are developing a coalition of conscience. And will in the not too distant future progress further. I believe in the bottom of my heart that before the victory is won some more will get scarred up a bit ….

“Physical death is the price that some must face to free their children from a permanent death of the spirit. And nothing can be more redemptive. So today I can sing, louder than ever before, We Shall Overcome.

“This will be a great day. It will not be the day of the white man. It will not be the day of the black man. It will be the day of man as ‘man.’

“And this will be the day all over this great nation, all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholic and Protestant – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual – Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”