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Knoxville historian recounts MLK's 1960 visit and speech at Knoxville College

Three years before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech, the civil rights leader delivered a different address during a visit to Knoxville College.

On Memorial Day in 1960, he gave a commencement speech on the lawn of the then all-black school.

"Dr. King told the class 'You are graduating and you are getting ready for the world of work,'” said historian Robert Booker. “'Remember when you go to work, do the very best you can. If you become a teacher, teach like Shakespeare wrote plays, if you become a doctor practice like Beethoven wrote symphonies, and even if you are a street sweeper, sweep streets like Raphael painted pictures.'”

“It was one of the most fascinating speeches I had ever heard," said Booker.

Dr. King’s words fueled a passion in the then-college junior who wanted life to be different.

"We were riding in the back of the bus, three of the major hospitals wouldn’t accept black people, we could only go to Chilhowee Park one day a week," explained Booker.

Booker had spent several years in the Army then returned home to Knoxville to attend school. What greeted him was a different life.

"I grew up in Knoxville under the segregation laws but when I spent three years in the Army and was able to stay in any hotel, go to any restaurant or theater I wanted to, I was free for the first time in my life, but when I came back to Knoxville in the spring of 1957 I was back to square one,” said Booker.

Booker led the sit-in movement to desegregate lunch counters and theaters in Knoxville.

“I was the first person in Knoxville to be arrested for trying to buy a ticket to the Tennessee Theater, and I’m very proud of the picture of me in the city jail. It’s my favorite picture,” said Booker.

Most importantly, MLK’s speech brought encouragement for black men and women living in a deeply segregated city.

"He said, 'Turn the other cheek and you will get the sympathy of the masses of the people,' and that’s what we did, it certainly worked here in Knoxville for us,” said Booker.

Several years after that speech, Booker became the first black state lawmaker from Knox County.

King’s visit to Knoxville seems historical to us now, but during the time, Booker says there was little media coverage of the event.

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