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Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses Watts residents in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion.
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The Martin Luther King Jr. map of Los Angeles

“Birmingham or Los Angeles, the cry is always the same: We want to be free”

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Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses Watts residents in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion.
| Bettmann Archive

Martin Luther King Jr. is inextricably tied to the South. But the civil rights legend was also a frequent visitor to Southern California, where he spoke in settings that reached all segments of the region: private fundraisers with movie stars and college students. African-American churches and synagogues. LAX press conferences and community groups.

From 1956 until just weeks before his assassination, King visited almost yearly, and sometimes multiple times a year. The following isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of everywhere he spoke in Southern California, but it does reflect the breadth of his efforts to bring the South’s struggle to light and effect change here as well.

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Jefferson High School

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King’s first trips to Southern California came during the summer of 1956. In June, he visited local African-American congregations; in August, he returned to attend the annual convention for the African-American fraternal group Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World Headquarters. He received its Elijah Lovejoy Award, given to “the person making the most significant contribution toward full citizenships rights of the Negroes,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The ceremony happened at Jefferson High; the following day, King was the grand marshal for their parade, which went through South Central Los Angeles.

On September 8, 1956, King received the Elijah Lovejoy Award from the Elks at the 57th annual grand lodge session of Elks of the World. The meeting held at Jefferson High School. 
Photos by Harry Adams

California Institute of Technology

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One of King’s longest trips in Los Angeles was also one of his earliest: a three-day residency at Caltech in February 1958. He gave three speeches during his stay, titled “A Great Time to Be Alive,” “Facing the Challenges of a New Age,” and a keynote—“Progress in Race Relations”—attended by only 200 people. King was so unknown in Southern California then that the Times didn’t even bother to cover his appearances.

King with Caltech students.
Courtesy Caltech Archives

Woolworth’s

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King and other national African-American civil rights leaders came to Los Angeles in July during the 1960 Democratic National Convention to push for a civil rights platform. They led 6,000 protesters to march after an NAACP rally at the Shrine Auditorium to the Sports Arena, site of the convention. But before that, King joined a protest outside the Woolworth’s in Downtown as the chain faced boycotts and sit-ins across the country for its discriminatory ways.

 
King at a Christian Ministries Conference protest at Woolworth’s in Downtown Los Angeles in 1960.
Courtesy of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge

Woodland Hills Community Church

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In 1960, Rev. Fred Doty cold-called King and invited him to speak to his San Fernando Valley congregation. King declined at first, but Doty persisted. “Well Brother Fred,” the Los Angeles Daily News quoted King as saying in a 50th-anniversary story, “you are a very persuasive young minister. Why don’t you call me a year from now and let’s talk.”

In January 1961, King gave two morning speeches at Woodland Hills Community Church, then gave an evening lecture at Canoga Park High School. Two weeks later, King marched on Washington.

Los Angeles Sports Arena

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June 1961 was King’s great introduction to the Southern California general public. On June 17, he did a press conference at LAX, went on a tour of Compton and Watts, and taped a segment for Channel 2. That afternoon, he rested in bed while giving an interview with the Times at the old Statler Hilton (which eventually became the since-demolished Wilshire Grand Hotel).

The following day, King hosted a breakfast at the Hillcrest Country Club, visited a church, and culminated his tour with a Freedom Riders Rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena attended by 25,000 people—18,000 inside, and 5,000 outside who listened through loudspeakers that organizers quickly put up. Police officials initially objected because they felt the crowd would “overwhelm” the police, according to the Times; it proceeded without incident.

Martin Luther King and Governor Edmund G. Brown during a Freedom Rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. An audience of 12,000 was expected at the 18,000-seat venue. When over 25,000 people showed up to hear King speak, many remained outside and listened to the speech over loudspeakers.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium

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In December 1961, King did a quick stop in Southern California that included a visit to Los Angeles Valley College and Chapman University (more on them in the next entry). In Santa Monica, King spoke at the invitation of Calvary Baptist Church and the Santa Monica Business and Professional Men’s Council. He returned in 1964 for a star-studded event that featured Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Count Basie, among others

Santa Monica’s civic auditorium in 1960. King attended a celebrity event here in 1964.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Chapman University

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Before Chapman turned into a school best known for its semi-annual Undie Runs, it was a small liberal college under the guidance of the progressive Disciples of Christ denomination. King finished his December in Southern California with a speech titled “Racial Justice and Nonviolent Resistance.” He gave it before an audience that, according to Chapman legend, protested him outside until MLK himself invited them in to hear him. Chapman has both an audio recording of the speech and a full transcript here.

Conner-Johnson Funeral Home Chapel 

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King returned to Southern California in June 1962 for a three-day sojourn that included stops at churches in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and San Diego. But he also took time to attend the dedication of a chapel at a mortuary owned by Crispus Wright, an influential civil rights attorney.

Ward Ame Church

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The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III: Birth of a New Age notes that King was scheduled to give a speech at this church in 1956 but had to cancel it at the last moment. He spoke here in 1962 and again in 1963.

Wrigley Field, Los Angeles 

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King was the keynote speaker at the then-home of the original Los Angeles Angels in 1963 for a rally before 30,0000 that included movie stars Dorothy Dandridge, Rita Moreno, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jr, Dick Gregory, and others. Afterward, King attended a fundraiser at Burt Lancaster’s home, where Marlon Brando joined the group. “Birmingham or Los Angeles, the cry is always the same,” he told the crowd. “We want to be free.”

King at a mass civil rights rally at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, May 26, 1963.
Associated Press and Harry Adams

Second Baptist Church

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King offered a guest sermon here in 1956, one of several he gave at the historic African-American church over his lifetime. In February 1964, over 2,000 people heard King speak about three Southern churches burned down for their efforts to register African-American voters. “The fact that they were burned,” he told the crowd, “indicated that those churches had become so relevant and were doing enough so that somebody wanted to burn them out.”

King and Rev. Thomas Kilgore, pastor of Second Baptist Church.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Temple Israel of Hollywood

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Every year, the Reform congregation plays the speech that King presented in February 1965, shortly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize and just days after the assassination of Malcolm X. NPR reported in a remembrance that his visit led to the largest-ever Sabbath collection for Temple Israel.

Hollywood Palladium

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During that same trip, King spoke before the World Affairs Council at this estimable concert venue. The night before, he tried to attend a screening of The Greatest Story Ever Told at the former Cinerama Dome down the street, only to have police find dynamite in the theater.

Martin Luther King is honored by the city of Los Angeles and the World Affairs Council during a luncheon held at the Hollywood Palladium.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

University of California, Los Angeles

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In 2015, UCLA excitedly announced it had found a long-lost speech King gave on campus in April 1965, a month after he and others marched to Selma. He spoke before an outdoor audience of 5,000, who raised $700 among themselves to donate to King. “Such moral and financial support are of inestimable value for the continuance of our humble efforts,” King wrote to a school administrator afterward.

Martin Luther King calls for UCLA students to join a “Domestic Freedom Corps” to work in 120 counties of the Deep South to help increase the number of registered African American voters. 
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Pasadena Friendship Church

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Pasadena proved a welcoming town for King, hosting him multiple times, and twice at this African-American church. He first spoke there in 1960, and returned in July 1965. His 1960 speech went without incident; for his second trip, according to this article, “crowds were so strong that a police barricade had to be erected around the church to control crowds and protect King.”

King speaking at a service inside the Friendship Baptist Church.
Pasadena Museum of History

Westminster Neighborhood Association

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Just a month later, King returned to visit Watts, which had just experienced its unrest. “Out of the ashes of this crisis we have the opportunity to deal with the housing problem, to build better schools, to deal with the police problem and perhaps make Los Angeles a model community,” he told reporters at LAX. While in town, King had an off-the-record conversation with Times editor Otis Chandler and held meetings with multiple community leaders.

But when he finally met with over 500 residents in the second-floor offices of this Watts community group, he was heckled repeatedly. At one point, King told the crowd he would do “all in my power” to get Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker and Mayor Sam Yorty to Watts. “I know you will be courteous to them,” he told the audience, which the Times reported “roared with laughter.”

King at a public gathering in a riot-torn area of Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 1965. King attended many meetings in an attempt to solve the problems connected with the uprising.
Associated Press

Occidental College

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King’s appearance at the Eagle Rock university in April 1967 included a press conference, a lunch with students and a keynote address titled “The Future of Integration” at Thorne Hall. Oxy students are currently working on a documentary that will take the audio of the speech and use past and present photos to frame the issues King spoke about then with those of today.

University of Southern California

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That fall of ’67, King gave a nighttime speech at USC’s Bovard Hall, where he previously spoke in 1962. About halfway through, however, the auditorium was evacuated after a bomb scare. When all was clear, King came back to finish his speech. The Daily Trojan honored him the following day with a headline that read “The Calm Martin Luther King.”

On the right is Bovard Hall, photographed in 1966, one year before King would speak here.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Anaheim Convention Center

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Just three weeks before his assassination, King spoke before the California Democratic Council, the liberal wing of the party. By now, he was focusing on the Poor People’s Campaign and his opposition to the Vietnam War, and noting the intersectionality each issue had with race. “I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern,” he told the crowd, in a speech on file in the Pacifica archives. “For since justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is an affront to justice everywhere.”

LA Memorial Coliseum

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King gave a speech here in 1964. The venue, however, also served as the place where he was memorialized on April 7, declared a national day of mourning by Lyndon Johnson days after King’s assassination. Over 20,000 people attended a rally here, with Cesar Chavez as the opening speaker. “We are here to honor a man whose Montgomery made our Delano possible,” Chavez said. “In the labor movement, let us never forget that [King] died for the right of our workers to organize.”

King speaking at civil rights rally at Los Angeles Coliseum, 1964.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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Jefferson High School

On September 8, 1956, King received the Elijah Lovejoy Award from the Elks at the 57th annual grand lodge session of Elks of the World. The meeting held at Jefferson High School. 
Photos by Harry Adams

King’s first trips to Southern California came during the summer of 1956. In June, he visited local African-American congregations; in August, he returned to attend the annual convention for the African-American fraternal group Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World Headquarters. He received its Elijah Lovejoy Award, given to “the person making the most significant contribution toward full citizenships rights of the Negroes,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The ceremony happened at Jefferson High; the following day, King was the grand marshal for their parade, which went through South Central Los Angeles.

On September 8, 1956, King received the Elijah Lovejoy Award from the Elks at the 57th annual grand lodge session of Elks of the World. The meeting held at Jefferson High School. 
Photos by Harry Adams

California Institute of Technology

King with Caltech students.
Courtesy Caltech Archives

One of King’s longest trips in Los Angeles was also one of his earliest: a three-day residency at Caltech in February 1958. He gave three speeches during his stay, titled “A Great Time to Be Alive,” “Facing the Challenges of a New Age,” and a keynote—“Progress in Race Relations”—attended by only 200 people. King was so unknown in Southern California then that the Times didn’t even bother to cover his appearances.

King with Caltech students.
Courtesy Caltech Archives

Woolworth’s

 
King at a Christian Ministries Conference protest at Woolworth’s in Downtown Los Angeles in 1960.
Courtesy of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge

King and other national African-American civil rights leaders came to Los Angeles in July during the 1960 Democratic National Convention to push for a civil rights platform. They led 6,000 protesters to march after an NAACP rally at the Shrine Auditorium to the Sports Arena, site of the convention. But before that, King joined a protest outside the Woolworth’s in Downtown as the chain faced boycotts and sit-ins across the country for its discriminatory ways.

 
King at a Christian Ministries Conference protest at Woolworth’s in Downtown Los Angeles in 1960.
Courtesy of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge

Woodland Hills Community Church

In 1960, Rev. Fred Doty cold-called King and invited him to speak to his San Fernando Valley congregation. King declined at first, but Doty persisted. “Well Brother Fred,” the Los Angeles Daily News quoted King as saying in a 50th-anniversary story, “you are a very persuasive young minister. Why don’t you call me a year from now and let’s talk.”

In January 1961, King gave two morning speeches at Woodland Hills Community Church, then gave an evening lecture at Canoga Park High School. Two weeks later, King marched on Washington.

Los Angeles Sports Arena

Martin Luther King and Governor Edmund G. Brown during a Freedom Rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. An audience of 12,000 was expected at the 18,000-seat venue. When over 25,000 people showed up to hear King speak, many remained outside and listened to the speech over loudspeakers.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

June 1961 was King’s great introduction to the Southern California general public. On June 17, he did a press conference at LAX, went on a tour of Compton and Watts, and taped a segment for Channel 2. That afternoon, he rested in bed while giving an interview with the Times at the old Statler Hilton (which eventually became the since-demolished Wilshire Grand Hotel).

The following day, King hosted a breakfast at the Hillcrest Country Club, visited a church, and culminated his tour with a Freedom Riders Rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena attended by 25,000 people—18,000 inside, and 5,000 outside who listened through loudspeakers that organizers quickly put up. Police officials initially objected because they felt the crowd would “overwhelm” the police, according to the Times; it proceeded without incident.

Martin Luther King and Governor Edmund G. Brown during a Freedom Rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. An audience of 12,000 was expected at the 18,000-seat venue. When over 25,000 people showed up to hear King speak, many remained outside and listened to the speech over loudspeakers.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium

Santa Monica’s civic auditorium in 1960. King attended a celebrity event here in 1964.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

In December 1961, King did a quick stop in Southern California that included a visit to Los Angeles Valley College and Chapman University (more on them in the next entry). In Santa Monica, King spoke at the invitation of Calvary Baptist Church and the Santa Monica Business and Professional Men’s Council. He returned in 1964 for a star-studded event that featured Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Count Basie, among others

Santa Monica’s civic auditorium in 1960. King attended a celebrity event here in 1964.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Chapman University

Before Chapman turned into a school best known for its semi-annual Undie Runs, it was a small liberal college under the guidance of the progressive Disciples of Christ denomination. King finished his December in Southern California with a speech titled “Racial Justice and Nonviolent Resistance.” He gave it before an audience that, according to Chapman legend, protested him outside until MLK himself invited them in to hear him. Chapman has both an audio recording of the speech and a full transcript here.

Conner-Johnson Funeral Home Chapel 

King returned to Southern California in June 1962 for a three-day sojourn that included stops at churches in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and San Diego. But he also took time to attend the dedication of a chapel at a mortuary owned by Crispus Wright, an influential civil rights attorney.

Ward Ame Church

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III: Birth of a New Age notes that King was scheduled to give a speech at this church in 1956 but had to cancel it at the last moment. He spoke here in 1962 and again in 1963.

Wrigley Field, Los Angeles 

King at a mass civil rights rally at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, May 26, 1963.
Associated Press and Harry Adams

King was the keynote speaker at the then-home of the original Los Angeles Angels in 1963 for a rally before 30,0000 that included movie stars Dorothy Dandridge, Rita Moreno, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jr, Dick Gregory, and others. Afterward, King attended a fundraiser at Burt Lancaster’s home, where Marlon Brando joined the group. “Birmingham or Los Angeles, the cry is always the same,” he told the crowd. “We want to be free.”

King at a mass civil rights rally at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, May 26, 1963.
Associated Press and Harry Adams

Second Baptist Church

King and Rev. Thomas Kilgore, pastor of Second Baptist Church.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

King offered a guest sermon here in 1956, one of several he gave at the historic African-American church over his lifetime. In February 1964, over 2,000 people heard King speak about three Southern churches burned down for their efforts to register African-American voters. “The fact that they were burned,” he told the crowd, “indicated that those churches had become so relevant and were doing enough so that somebody wanted to burn them out.”

King and Rev. Thomas Kilgore, pastor of Second Baptist Church.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Temple Israel of Hollywood

Every year, the Reform congregation plays the speech that King presented in February 1965, shortly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize and just days after the assassination of Malcolm X. NPR reported in a remembrance that his visit led to the largest-ever Sabbath collection for Temple Israel.

Hollywood Palladium

Martin Luther King is honored by the city of Los Angeles and the World Affairs Council during a luncheon held at the Hollywood Palladium.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

During that same trip, King spoke before the World Affairs Council at this estimable concert venue. The night before, he tried to attend a screening of The Greatest Story Ever Told at the former Cinerama Dome down the street, only to have police find dynamite in the theater.

Martin Luther King is honored by the city of Los Angeles and the World Affairs Council during a luncheon held at the Hollywood Palladium.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

University of California, Los Angeles

Martin Luther King calls for UCLA students to join a “Domestic Freedom Corps” to work in 120 counties of the Deep South to help increase the number of registered African American voters. 
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

In 2015, UCLA excitedly announced it had found a long-lost speech King gave on campus in April 1965, a month after he and others marched to Selma. He spoke before an outdoor audience of 5,000, who raised $700 among themselves to donate to King. “Such moral and financial support are of inestimable value for the continuance of our humble efforts,” King wrote to a school administrator afterward.

Martin Luther King calls for UCLA students to join a “Domestic Freedom Corps” to work in 120 counties of the Deep South to help increase the number of registered African American voters. 
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Pasadena Friendship Church

King speaking at a service inside the Friendship Baptist Church.
Pasadena Museum of History

Pasadena proved a welcoming town for King, hosting him multiple times, and twice at this African-American church. He first spoke there in 1960, and returned in July 1965. His 1960 speech went without incident; for his second trip, according to this article, “crowds were so strong that a police barricade had to be erected around the church to control crowds and protect King.”

King speaking at a service inside the Friendship Baptist Church.
Pasadena Museum of History

Westminster Neighborhood Association

King at a public gathering in a riot-torn area of Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 1965. King attended many meetings in an attempt to solve the problems connected with the uprising.
Associated Press

Just a month later, King returned to visit Watts, which had just experienced its unrest. “Out of the ashes of this crisis we have the opportunity to deal with the housing problem, to build better schools, to deal with the police problem and perhaps make Los Angeles a model community,” he told reporters at LAX. While in town, King had an off-the-record conversation with Times editor Otis Chandler and held meetings with multiple community leaders.

But when he finally met with over 500 residents in the second-floor offices of this Watts community group, he was heckled repeatedly. At one point, King told the crowd he would do “all in my power” to get Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker and Mayor Sam Yorty to Watts. “I know you will be courteous to them,” he told the audience, which the Times reported “roared with laughter.”

King at a public gathering in a riot-torn area of Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 1965. King attended many meetings in an attempt to solve the problems connected with the uprising.
Associated Press

Occidental College

King’s appearance at the Eagle Rock university in April 1967 included a press conference, a lunch with students and a keynote address titled “The Future of Integration” at Thorne Hall. Oxy students are currently working on a documentary that will take the audio of the speech and use past and present photos to frame the issues King spoke about then with those of today.

University of Southern California

On the right is Bovard Hall, photographed in 1966, one year before King would speak here.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

That fall of ’67, King gave a nighttime speech at USC’s Bovard Hall, where he previously spoke in 1962. About halfway through, however, the auditorium was evacuated after a bomb scare. When all was clear, King came back to finish his speech. The Daily Trojan honored him the following day with a headline that read “The Calm Martin Luther King.”

On the right is Bovard Hall, photographed in 1966, one year before King would speak here.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Anaheim Convention Center

Just three weeks before his assassination, King spoke before the California Democratic Council, the liberal wing of the party. By now, he was focusing on the Poor People’s Campaign and his opposition to the Vietnam War, and noting the intersectionality each issue had with race. “I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern,” he told the crowd, in a speech on file in the Pacifica archives. “For since justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is an affront to justice everywhere.”

LA Memorial Coliseum

King speaking at civil rights rally at Los Angeles Coliseum, 1964.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

King gave a speech here in 1964. The venue, however, also served as the place where he was memorialized on April 7, declared a national day of mourning by Lyndon Johnson days after King’s assassination. Over 20,000 people attended a rally here, with Cesar Chavez as the opening speaker. “We are here to honor a man whose Montgomery made our Delano possible,” Chavez said. “In the labor movement, let us never forget that [King] died for the right of our workers to organize.”

King speaking at civil rights rally at Los Angeles Coliseum, 1964.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection