On February 28, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Pasadena to address the congregation at Friendship Baptist Church. As one of the oldest Black congregations in the city, which was founded in 1893, King’s trip to Pasadena was his second, and was in conjunction with a Southern California fundraising trip for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.). King’s visit was at the invitation of then pastor of Friendship Church, Marvin T. Robinson, who first contacted King in a 1956 telegram. Subsequent correspondences followed in the years leading up to King’s 1960 visit, perhaps even during King’s first trip to Pasadena, at Caltech, two years earlier.
While well received by city residents, one report notes that King’s appearance occurred the morning after a Black city resident was the recipient of a cross burning on his lawn. This was not the first such incident in the city and certainly it would not be the last. As in the south, racial animus and discrimination also was prevalent in the west. While significant, the regularity and intensity of these experiences paled in comparison to the brazen and regular volatile encounters witnessed in the south. Even though explicit public acts of hate and domestic terrorism against Black people were not as frequently witnessed in Southern California, the racial vitriol was yet deeply embedded in the hearts of certain communities. The Los Angeles Times even reported a cross burning at a former black residence of neighboring Glendale as late as 1993.
Local Black leaders and city residents’ alike, equality came out to hear King and to offer support for his campaign for equal rights (i.e., voting rights and institutional desegregation). King addressed Friendship Baptist Church on “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” which also was the subject of his candidate address for the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. In his remarks, King reiterated his gratefulness to Pastor Robinson, for his friendship and extended invitation. King expressed that the importance for equal rights and freedom for Black folks was as urgent in Pasadena as it was for those in Jackson, Mississippi and Montgomery, Alabama:
“Now, naturally, it takes a lot of time and energy and money to do this because it means getting people into the various communities and into various counties to conduct voting clinics and block campaigns in order to do the job and therefore, we are expanding our staff in order to do this, and I solicit your cooperation and your continued support and your prayers. For in a real sense the Negro cannot be free in Pasadena or Los Angeles until the Negro is free in Jackson, Mississippi and Montgomery, Alabama.”
King’s words and civil rights efforts are as prevalent today as they were 63 years ago when he appeared at Pasadena’s Friendship Baptist Church. The sunrise of freedom, equity and belonging for Black Americans is upon the horizon. Our marching and striving must continue in the face and memory of the cross-burnings of opposition.
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins (Ph.D., University of Manchester, U.K.) is Associate Professor of Christian Scriptures and Black Church Studies at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. He is a Pedagogy Fellow with the Yale University Center for Faith and Culture and the author of the recent book Cultic Spiritualization: Religious Sacrifice in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Gorgias Press, 2022)