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Martin Luther King at the Laurels

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 10/30/20

In October of 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech entitled “The Future of Integration” at the annual convention of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union District 65 at the …

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Martin Luther King at the Laurels

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In October of 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech entitled “The Future of Integration” at the annual convention of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union District 65 at the Laurels Country Club in Sackett Lake. Less than two weeks after that October 8 appearance, he was sitting in jail for attempting to integrate the lunch counter at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta, Georgia.

It was not the first time King had delivered the speech-- nor would it be the last-- although he had updated it a number of times since he had first given it at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City in May of 1957. In the speech, he broke down the history of race relations in the United States into “three distinct periods,” while noting that during each of those periods it was a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that “gave legal and constitutional validity to the dominant thought patterns of that particular period.”

King noted that the first period of race relations in this country was “the era of slavery,” which he said extended from 1619 to 1862. During this period, he said, “the Negro was considered a thing to be used rather than a person to be respected.” He cited the Dred Scott decision of 1857 as giving constitutional validity to the system of slavery. The next period, he said, lasted from 1863 until 1954, and could be considered a period of “restricted emancipation” which gave rise to widespread segregation and “nagging injustice,” validated by the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which made the concept of “separate but equal” the law of the land. Then, he went on, came the period of “constructive desegregation” in which the Supreme Court established that separate facilities are “inherently unequal.”

For all the progress that had been made in 340 years, he said, much more work needed to be done before actual equality could be attained.

Following his speech in Sackett Lake, King was to embark on an ambitious schedule of appearances, which was interrupted when police broke up the sit-in at the lunch counter at Rich's. King was sentenced to four months in prison as the result, but ended up serving just eight days. Upon his release, he resumed his duties as co-pastor (along with his father) of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and continued to be in demand as a speaker. He would shortly become the unquestioned leader of the Civil Rights movement in America, and his greatest accomplishments, such as his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech were still a few years away.

Conventions such as that of the RWDSU were nothing new at the Laurels, which by 1960 accommodated more than 1500 guests and was the largest of the Sullivan County hotels. The Laurels pioneered the concept of hosting conventions here in the early 1930s, and organizations as diverse as the New York State Credit Union League, the New York Public Welfare Association, and the Young Republicans would regularly gather at the Sackett Lake venue over the next four decades. During World War II, when wartime travel restrictions had caused the cancellation of many of its scheduled conventions—five in the month of June, 1943 alone— the Laurels was so busy it had not skipped a beat.

Nor were celebrities a rare sight at the hotel, at which singers, dancers, and comedians often performed on stage until the wee hours of the morning. But Martin Luther King's appearance—and a second one at the RWDSU'S September, 1962 convention at the Laurels-- was still noteworthy, as the speech came at a critical time in his rise to international fame, and caused many who had not previously been aware of his message to take notice of a building storm.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com

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