When Martin Luther King, Jr. Visited Puerto Rico

When our friends at Puerto Rico en Serio tweeted the following tweet, it got us thinking about what is one of the least-known facts from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—the time he visited Puerto Rico in 1962:

In fact, King visited the island at least two times in his life: in 1962 and in 1965. A 2011 feature in El Nuevo Día talks about both the visits (translation is ours):

The first visit was in 1962, when [King] was invited by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to speak in what is now the Interamerican University in San Germán. He also spoke at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras.

After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, King returned to speak at the World Convention of Churches of Christ and “was in a chapel of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico where Martin Luther King publicly denounced and broke the evangelical silence on Vietnam War…”

The World Convention of Churches of Christ also shared more details about King’s 1965 visit:

Among the speakers for the Convention were President of the World Council of Churches, Martin Niemoeller and Martin Luther King, Jr., Executive Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who spoke at the Saturday evening service. Carl Ketcherside was also a speaker, thought to be the first time a preacher from the American a cappella Churches of Christ spoke at a World Convention. US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, himself a lifelong Disciple, was honored with a World Convention Citation, which was later presented at a White House ceremony. The Seventh Assembly of the World Convention of Churches of Christ, 1965. Sunday evening saw the closing assembly communion service in which was instituted a World Convention tradition that has continued with nearly each subsequent Convention, that is the souvenir communion cup which participants take home as both a remembrance of the Body of Christ and the global fellowship of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

King’s entire 1962 speech at the Interamericana can be read here:

Martin Luther King, Jr. Speeches in Puerto Rico: 1962 by Latino Rebels

The King Center also contains several examples of correspondence between Puerto Ricans and King, including one letter from the island’s Secretary of Education to King about Puerto Rico’s race problems. It is a must read that offers an insight that is rarely discussed: that racism in Puerto Rico is the product of an imposed colonial system with a quote that says it all, “In the United States, a man’s color determines what class he belongs to; in Puerto Rico a man’s class determines what color he is.”

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In addition, there is the fact that Roberto Clemente met with King for a day in Puerto Rico (either in 1962 or 1964), and how King’s life deeply impacted the Puerto Rican baseball legend. It is discussed in the definitive book on Clemente’s life, as well as in this blog post from Common Dreams:

It might seem odd that Clemente, a proud Puerto Rican national, would have led such an extraordinary action. But Clemente, who had a passionate belief in social and economic justice, considered King a personal hero. He had even met face to face with Dr. King, spending a day together on Clemente’s farm in Puerto Rico.

David Maraniss quotes Clemente’s feelings about King in his 2005 biography of the Hall of Fame outfielder:

“When Martin Luther King started doing what he did, he changed the whole system of the American style. He put the people, the ghetto people, the people who didn’t have nothing to say in those days, they started saying what they would have liked to say for many years that nobody listened to. Now with this man, these people come down to the place where they were supposed to be but people didn’t want them, and sit down there as if they were white and call attention to the whole world. Now that wasn’t only the black people but the minority people. The people who didn’t have anything, and they had nothing to say in those days because they didn’t have any power, they started saying things and they started picketing, and that’s the reason I say he changed the whole world…”

Very little else in English has been chronicled about King’s visits to Puerto Rico, but this 2011 UPS blog asking its employees about what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant to them does include what a Puerto Rican employee named Olga had to say:

Memorable moments in my life, I remember when Rev. Martin Luther King came to Puerto Rico in 1962, and I had the honor to meet him. I keep a photo with my family and me with Rev. Martin Luther King as one of my biggest treasures in my life.

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