On April 22, 1965, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the Massachusetts Legislature in a Joint Session comprised of State Senate and State Representatives. This was the first time Dr. King spoke before a legislative body. Six months prior to this visit, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Selma to Montgomery marches took place the month before.
I was personally unaware of this historic visit until I became a legislator and was researching civil rights history while preparing remarks for my participation in a special Martin Luther King, Jr. Day breakfast held annually at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, jointly with the Haverhill’s Calvary Baptist Church. While researching, I came across a black and white Boston Globe photograph of Dr. King speaking in the chambers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives before assembled legislators. Seeing this snapshot in time opened a door of learning for me and provided new understanding and appreciation for the role Massachusetts played in the movement for civil rights.
After the first Selma march on March 7, Dr. King requested support from clergy nation-wide to assist the effort and Unitarian Universalist Minister James Reeb of Boston responded to the call and traveled to Selma.
On the day Reeb arrived in Selma, he and other ministers were attacked and beaten and the 38 year-old minister died from his injuries a few days later on March 11, 1965. Reeb’s murder and the death and injuries of activists garnered national attention and added on to the mounting events, which catalyzed federal action to pass the Voting Rights Act.
Dr. King stated in his speech to the Massachusetts Legislature, “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent action of the bad people who will bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama or club down a Reverend James Reeb, or shoot a Mrs. Viola Liuzzo. We must also repent for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit down and say wait on time. Ultimately we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wills of inevitability.”
I was honored to participate in an initiative led by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address to the Legislature. We worked to coordinate a tribute, which closely mirrored the program of April 22, 1965. This convening of the two branches in Joint Session took place on Monday, April 27 and included a prayer offered by Reverend Michael E. Haynes who served as a Massachusetts state representative from 1965 to 1969 and accompanied Dr. King on his Boston visits. It was incredibly impactful to have an individual like Reverend Haynes start the program. He worked with Dr. King for many years and carried forth a message to those gathered that we have a responsibility to carry on the work of those who are no longer here.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg gave a welcoming address and House Speaker Robert offered reflected and quoted remarks from then House Speaker John Davoren who had the honor introducing Dr. King in 1965. Former Speaker Davoren stated, “It is appropriate indeed that the people of Massachusetts, through their elected representatives, should proudly welcome here today this selfless apostle of non-violent action as the best means to advance the cause of civil rights and to achieve equal justice under the law.” Governor Baker read a formal proclamation and then members of the Black and Latino Caucus took turns reading sections of Dr. King’s speech. Dr. King stated in his address, “We must see that the time is always right to do right, and that we must constantly help time.”
It was important for attendees to have an opportunity to hear the speech in its entirety and unabridged, as each section remains to be very relevant today. At the conclusion of the recitation, Ms. Katie Days sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, joined by attendees singing in what made for a moving moment of shared appreciation and respect for those who sacrificed and led during the civil rights movement of the 1965. And, an awareness that Dr. King saw a unique role for Massachusetts saying that day, “It was from these shores that a vision of a new nation conceived in liberty was born, and it must be from these shores that liberty must be preserved…”
I was proud to have been a part of this event’s planning process and work to me mindful of Dr. King’s words and actions as a legislator, hopeful of the difference we can make together growing acceptance, respect and compassion.
Senator O’Connor Ives can be reached at KATHLEEN.OCONNORIVES@MASENATE.GOV