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On the evening of Monday, May 9, 1960, a smartly dressed Martin Luther King Jr. took the stage at Hill Hall and spoke of progress and tolerance to a full auditorium of students, faculty and community members. After a straightforward yet riveting presentation, the speaker ended by saying, “We’ve come a long, long way,” then paused, and added, “and we have a long way to go.” Half the room erupted into a standing ovation. The other half sat in stunned silence.
Though his visit to Chapel Hill 54 years ago received little local coverage, the power of the civil rights leader’s presence made a lasting impact on those who witnessed it.
“I called it fresh air,” says the Rev. J.R. Manley, who served as pastor of First Baptist Church for 65 years. “He brought fresh air to the town.”
UNC journalism professor Donald Shaw was a senior living in Battle-Vance-Pettigrew dormitory in 1960. The town was by then on the cusp of “a tumultuous period” marked by protests and integrations.
“Civil rights were just kind of creeping into Chapel Hill,” Shaw says. “I look back on it with satisfaction in terms of the university extending the invitation, treating him so courteously, making that point of view available. There might have been people who protested against it; I don’t know. But on campus it was just part of our evolving open nature that it didn’t generate any big news.”
After King’s presentation at Hill Hall, which Shaw remembers as relatively short and “not at all confrontational,” many of the attendees crossed the quad to Graham Memorial to meet the man himself. “There were other receptions given there over the years because for many years that was the student equivalent – I guess sort of like the student union,” Shaw says. “He was on the side, and there was a long line of people. We went up one by one. He had a nice, firm handshake.”
Shaw also was impressed by King’s appearance. “He was very nattily dressed … I don’t know if he had a little flyer on or not, but he was a cool dresser. He really looked neat and trim,” he says.
King came as sit-ins were becoming more commonplace along Franklin St., starting with a Feb. 28 sit-in by Lincoln High School students at Colonial Drug. King had arrived on May 8 and first met with African-American community leaders at Hargraves Center. The morning of the 9th, Manley had the chance to shake King’s hand when he stopped by United Church for lunch at the Parish House with a small gathering of local ministers and supporters. It was the only place in town where King could meet with black and white clergy together.
“He had some supporters in the white community,” Manley explains. “They encouraged him, and so he was better prepared to do some things than the average person because he had information from the inside and the outside.”
“He was gracious, nice,” Manley continues, remembering their relaxed meeting. “He was praising everybody.”
The force of King’s words that night at Hill Hall still affects Shaw today. “It appealed to your higher nature. It made you want to be better.” Manley remembers being uplifted by King’s words. “He said, ‘OK now, you don’t have to go out of here with your head hung down because you have some disadvantages in schools and other things. Hold your head up; this is America. Move forward.’”
BACKSTORY The decision to rename Airport Rd. to honor King was controversial. Town leaders cited King’s visit in 1960 as one of the many reasons to make the change, and the road was officially renamed on May 8, 2005, 45 years to the day of King’s visit. In 1984, Chapel Hill became one of the first municipalities to declare King’s birthday a holiday. It became a federal holiday two years later. TW
UNC will host a week of cooperatively planned events, including a rally, march and worship service, keynote lecture and day of service, to commemorate the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. from Jan. 19-25. Visit diversity.unc.edu to learn more.