Bud Kennedy

Memories fading of MLK’s Fort Worth visit, but landmarks remain

The home where King slept in 1959 is one of few remaining on now mostly vacant Stewart Street.
The home where King slept in 1959 is one of few remaining on now mostly vacant Stewart Street. Star-Telegram

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. slept here, in a home off Evans Avenue, as the guest of a Christian author.

That same day in 1959, he was a coffee guest of seminary professors in a home on Bellaire Drive West.

The memory is fading now, but King is not some long-ago historical figure. He spoke downtown Oct. 22, 1959, at the long-gone Majestic Theater on Commerce Street.

His topic: “A Great Time to Be Alive.”

About 400 people went. Hundreds more wish they had.

“The tragedy is, there were ministers and leaders of color who were afraid to extend him greetings,” said retired state District Judge Maryellen Hicks, the speaker at the city’s 30th King Day observance.

“They were afraid of retaliation — afraid they’d get fired if somebody found out they went.”

In 1959, Fort Worth was on the cusp of change. The ugly Mansfield High School incident, Texas’ Little Rock, was only three years past. Desegregation of schools and downtown stores was still three years away.

Baptist teacher and author Vada Felder met King at an education conference and invited him to visit.

He shared barbecue with friends, went to a reception at chiropractor Aurelia Harris’ home in the 900 block of East Hattie Street, and later slept upstairs at a home that still stands on Stewart Street.

Nobody on Stewart today would remember King’s visit, a neighbor said last week. Few remember Felder, the first African-American graduate of Brite Divinity School. She died at 97 in 2008.

The street where King slept now has mostly vacant lots and security fences.

In a 2002 interview, Felder remembered the phoned bomb threats for King’s visit.

“His visit gave us courage,” she said.

“He taught us that we could stand up and do what was right — and do it in peace.”

Before King’s speech, he was the coffee guest of Brite Divinity School professor Harold Lunger and his wife, Alberta, with a handful of Brite professors and University Christian Church members in their Worth Hills home in the 3100 block of Bellaire Drive West.

The Lungers had been praying with Baker Funeral Home owner Herbert Baker, King’s tour guide that day, as part of an interracial fellowship group.

The Lungers and a TCU librarian, the late Mary Lu Hall, were among the few white worshippers that night at King’s speech.

“I think we all sensed that he was a very special person,” Hall said in a 2002 interview.

Hicks, working on her Sunday speech, called it “incredible” that King was hosted in 1959 in a then-all-white Fort Worth neighborhood.

“Wasn’t that something? Think of the courage it took for those professors to invite him into their home,” she said.

Retired Star-Telegram religion writer Jim Jones has told often how the Majestic program went that night.

Gospel singer Francine Morrison played piano and sang If I Can Help Somebody as I Pass Along, My Living Shall Not Be in Vain.

The Rev. C.C. Harper of Mount Gilead Baptist Church, a friend of King’s father, introduced him.

“We stand between the dying old and the emerging new,” King said.

“There can be no birth or growth without pains. … The infant Freedom is crying to be born.”

In the 2002 interview, Felder said she was proudest that “he came and went from Fort Worth in peace.”

We barely remember.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.