As Black History Month draws to a close, a local historic event worth noting has come to my attention: On Jan. 14, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. made a visit to the old Santa Rita Jail, just months before he was assassinated. It was the day before his birthday -- now a national holiday. He was turning 39.
King flew to the Bay Area to visit folksinger Joan Baez, her mother Joan Bridge Baez and activist Ira Sandperl, who were serving 45-day "Christmas prison terms" after their participation in Stop the Draft Week protests at the Oakland Induction Center. They previously had joined King on civil rights marches in the south.
I remember this turbulent time, when the evening news broadcast civil rights demonstrations and protests against the war as well as body counts from Vietnam. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The world was a disturbing place.
My husband Jim and I were in our last year of college, at Santa Clara University and San Jose State, respectively, so he, of course, received a draft notice. After weighing the options, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for four years, and on Aug. 22 I drove him to that same Induction Center in Oakland for a fraught farewell.
Jason A. Bezis, a lawyer who grew up in Livermore and now lives in Lafayette, documented the King visit to Santa Rita in great detail at trivalleyhistory.blogspot.com on the 50th anniversary of the visit, two years ago. He quoted a telegram King sent to Baez on Dec. 29:
"At a time when our nation wages such an inhuman effort against the right to life and self-determination of the people of Vietnam, jail is the most moral place to be."
King was no stranger to prisons and jails; his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is "a renowned piece of civil disobedience literature," noted Bezis in his blog.
That rainy Jan. 14, a Sunday, about 200 people held a vigil in front of the gate to Santa Rita. After spending about an hour inside the jail, King exited and stopped to give an impromptu 10-minute speech to the sympathizers.
"Barry Schrader of the Herald & News was a few feet away from Dr. King as he spoke," Bezis blogged. "Mr. Schrader recalls that Dr. King addressed the crowd while standing on the running board of his car."
A recording is at archive.org/details/MartinLutherKingAtSantaRita1968.
King reported that the Baezes and Sandperl were in good spirits. He explained that he took time out of his schedule to come and support them, comparing the fights for civil rights and for peace.
"I see these two struggles as one struggle," King pontificated in his distinctive style. "There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice."
Some had criticized him, he said, for getting involved in the peace movement instead of only focusing on civil rights.
"I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns," he told the crowd.
After his speech, King spent another 10 minutes answering reporters' questions as the protesters broke into song.
King was assassinated fewer than three months later, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. The Herald & News ran a photo from his Jan. 14 visit with the caption, "Dr. Martin Luther King spoke recently in Pleasanton. He re-emphasized his commitment to non-violence."
Three days later, on April 7, 16 leaders from different faiths in the Tri-Valley held a memorial service for Dr. King at the Livermore First Presbyterian Church that Sunday, Bezis blogged, and about 500 attended.
Bezis told me he became interested in Martin Luther King Jr. when as a junior at Livermore High School in 1989 he was given an assignment to memorize a speech from American history. "I Have a Dream" appealed to him because it made him realize that history happens in our own lifetimes.
He is hoping some type of marker will be placed near where King spoke on Jan. 14, 1968, at the site of the old jail, which was moved in the late 1980s. Much of American history happened on the East Coast, Bezis pointed out, but this historical event took place right outside Pleasanton.