Martin Luther King, Jr. at San Diego State - 50th Anniversary Commemoration Set for April 30

In the spring of 1964, music archivist and vintage record store owner Lou Curtiss was a 24-year-old political science major at what was then San Diego State College.  When he learned civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was scheduled to speak at the Open Air Theater on Friday, May 29, he knew he had to be there.

Nine months before, King had delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.  He was Time Magazine’s 1963 Person of the Year.

Curtiss had attended the March on Washington and heard King speak.  He had also met King that year near Atlanta during a peace walk.

Fifty years later he can’t recall much of what King had to say at San Diego State.  What he does remember is what happened when he approached the reverend after the speech.

“I guess he had just a phenomenal memory for names and faces,” says Curtiss. “Dr. King walked up and said, 'Hi, Lou!  How are you?' and reached out.

"I was really proud of the fact that he remembered me. I felt real good about it and it's something I've never forgotten."


Although many details of that day have been lost in the past half century, SDSU will commemorate King’s visit to campus with an April 30 plaque dedication at the university’s Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre upper courtyard.  SDSU President Elliot Hirshman and professor emeritus of Africana studies, California Assemblywoman Shirley Weber will be among the featured speakers at the 3:30 p.m. public event preceding the university’s annual Diversity Awards celebration at 4:30 in Montezuma Hall.

SDSU Anthropology Department Chair Seth Mallios, Ph.D., is part of a committee researching the speech and planning the commemoration.  He has heard from almost 50 alumni and others who say they remember attending that event or the speech King gave later that same day at Cal Western University - now Point Loma University.

“We don’t have a copy of the speech he gave at State,” says Mallios who has lifted quotes from newspaper articles and consulted with researchers who have studied the civil rights leader’s oratory.  According to the professor, King came to San Diego State to argue against Proposition 14, a ballot measure at the time.

“Prop. 14 was going to nullify the Rumford Fair Housing Act,” Mallios says. “It was going to say that landlords could rent to whoever they wanted, that they could discriminate.”


King was unsuccessful in his efforts.  Prop. 14 was passed by California voters, but was later struck down by the Supreme Court.

“One of the reasons King’s visit here was so important is that it shines a light on the historical reality that San Diego and California were not that progressive,” Mallios asserts. “We in the West like to think that California is very progressive, especially on the issue with civil rights, but what this is showing is that that wasn't the case.”

In fact, both of King’s San Diego speeches were picketed by protestors.  That same day, his home in Florida was fire bombed.

“They're handing out pamphlets both here and at Cal Western saying he was a communist,” says Mallios. “He's in the midst of this huge civil rights struggle in the South and then, oh yeah, his house gets fire bombed in Florida.  It was a time when this man was enduring fights on so many different fronts and he hadn’t even fully taken on economic discrimination and the Vietnam War yet.” 


Two days before King’s visit and following an intense campaign, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had been given student-group status on campus. A junior majoring in geography in the spring of 1964, Ralph Clem (’65), now a 70-year-old retired Air Force general and university professor emeritus, had helped the petition effort to bring CORE to San Diego State.

“His visit was timely," Clem says. "I remember there being a lot of excitement about it. I went with two or three friends and was frankly kind of surprised that it was overflowing in terms of the crowd, which of course was a good thing.

"He talked a lot about the institutional basis of the civil rights movement and about the need for legal reforms, the need for members of minority groups and particularly African-Americans to have access to the full range of rights that any citizen should expect in this country and how that might be pursued.

“I don't remember it as rousing. I remember it as very impressive. He didn't bring forth the kind of full power of his Southern Baptist preacher sermonizing. He did on occasion rise, but it was more of, I don't want to say an ‘academic’ talk because it wasn't an academic talk, but it was more of a lecture than it was a speech."


One of those attending the speech with Clem was Steve Lamprides (’74,’82), an environmental consultant who remembers where he and his friends were sitting in the audience listening to King.  More involved with his studies than with the politics of the time, he says he attended the speech simply to broaden his college experience.

“It was a goal of mine in those days - still is - to know as much as I possibly can," Lamprides recalls. “I just thought he was an interesting man with an interesting philosophy."

Later, of course, he would come to more fully understand and appreciate Dr. King’s role in American history.

At the time, Ambrose Brodus, Jr., on the other hand, fully grasped what King was trying to achieve.  He had met the young reverend at San Diego’s Calvary Baptist Church in February of 1960, where King had shaken his and autographed a program.

“I saw enough of him to see the charisma,” Brodus says. “The man believed. He practiced what he preached and we could see that he was determined.”

At 89, the former local CORE leader and San Diego County Urban League administrator doesn’t remember much of King’s San Diego State appearance.  But he knows King’s words inspired at least some members of the audience to action.

“I think he was able to move some students and not only some students but some faculty,” recalls Brodus, a Louisiana native who had served jail time for protesting the exclusionary policies of some San Diego businesses regarding people of color. “I saw people become involved with CORE, the Urban League and some other activities beyond the Urban League from State."


In fact, Brodus says, King’s visit to San Diego State helped strengthen his own resolve to continue the struggle for equal rights. “After seeing King and hearing him talk you can't go away and refuse to do something or refuse to be involved,” he notes.

While many Southern Californians think of the civil rights movement as something that took place largely in other parts of the country, those more directly involved in activism, like Brodus and Curtiss, remember it differently.  They view Dr. King’s San Diego visit as a boost to their efforts and are pleased that SDSU will commemorate the 50th anniversary of his speech on campus.

"At that stage of the game, I think it was important (for Dr. King) to start getting out into places like San Diego, you know, places that weren't really thought of as places that had a big race problem, but probably had more of a race problem than they knew they had,” observes Curtiss. “Dr. King, by coming to San Diego, stirred up a lot of interest in the local community into sitting down and working out their differences and getting some things done and I think we're all the better for it.

"It was an interesting time to be around. A lot of things got done in the ‘60s that needed doing. There are still some things that need to be done, but a lot of things got done and Dr. King, of course, was a big part of that."