In November 1960, Ben Uchitelle was a young father who had just moved to St. Louis to start his career as a lawyer. As members of the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA, now the JCC), Ben and his wife Susan were excited to hear that the organization, headed by executive director Bill Kahn and president Isadore E. Millstone, had retained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be the featured speaker at the popular “Liberal Forum” lecture series.
The Liberal Forum rivaled university-sponsored lecture series for prestige in St. Louis. Former speakers included Richard Wright, Margaret Sanger, Thomas Mann, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the series: “No other lecture or discussion series regularly provides for the intellectual life of St. Louis the type of personal stimulation which it [the Liberal Forum] furnishes.
2007, while Dr. Susan Uchitelle was the executive director of the Voluntary Interdistrict Coordinating Council, working to implement desegregation in St. Louis schools.
Below, Ben shares his recollections of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “The Future of Integration,” and reflects on how his later career was influenced by Dr. King’s words and message.
ON MLK AS A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE
“He was a controversial, electrifying figure. Look what tragically happened to him. He was causing change by his non-violent actions, and the non-violent actions of his followers. And he was a hated person, by some people . . . So yeah, I’m sure his coming was controversial. But huge turnout. Everybody, I mean, liberal Judaism and liberal people that—That speech, by the way, on November 27th, 1960, was attended not just by Jewish congregation, but by anybody who could get a ticket who wanted to come. I don’t recall though there being any security, going through the doors or anything like that. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall that at all.”
ON THE SPEECH
“The place was packed, jam-packed. And I was fortunate to get a seat on the side. I had a seat on the side, but fairly up close, fairly up front . . . I don’t remember his speech as such, other than to say it was on civil rights and the movement, and we shall overcome. But it was mesmerizing in the sense of his eloquence. He just captured, you know, he had, he was a speaker. He talked off the cuff. He had some notes, but it wasn’t a canned speech to my memory. He reached out to the audience and he started, started slowly, and he kept getting better and better and better. He spoke for some length of time. And I think there were questions at the end, but the speech was the thing, the speech was the thing.
Certainly everybody who was there felt like me, that it was a magnificent speech. And I’m sure everybody who was there said, ‘I want to try to do better.’ We all fall by the wayside as time goes on. But it was a plus for St. Louis. A small plus. You know, you got to keep on these things, day in, day out, day in, day out. But it was a plus.”
ON MLK’S ASSASSINATION
Do you remember the day that he was assassinated?
“Yes, vividly, vividly. It was terrifying, terrifying, knowledge of that event. That was … He was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Jack Kennedy was assassinated. As somebody said, guns and America are one and the same almost in that sense. They’re all over the place. Yes, I do remember, to answer your question.
When he was, after his assassination there was a march. A peaceful march. Other cities ignited. St. Louis stayed civil, but there was a long march, which we participated in. March of respect.”
ON THE IMPACT ON HIS CAREER
“Maybe that helped us to keep going. Both in Freedom of Residence and Susan in her work as the head of the desegregation program. Certainly, you know, it’s the sort of speech that you carry with you in the sense of memory. It’s something I mentioned to the person that you spoke to. You remember something like that, just like you remember important days of your life. In retrospect, that was one.
“You know, this effort to bring about equality is an ongoing battle. And you’ve seen what’s happened. Here’s Ferguson. Sometimes you wonder, you take two steps forward and three steps back, and two steps forward and one step sideways. And so you’ll carry on too. And we’re still at it. I’m on the help to form the Clayton Community Equity Commission, which we’re working on trying to bring a better face for Clayton in the region, in the world of diversity and equity. So it’s all goes to Martin Luther King.”
This article by Julia Lacher, oral historian at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, is published by permission of the Missouri Historical Society, which includes additional images and information.