OGDEN -- It doesn't exactly coincide with the Martin Luther King holiday today, but Utah is marking a 50-year anniversary involving King that Dr. Forrest Crawford is having trouble getting Utahns to realize is worth their attention.
On Jan. 31, 1961, the Rev. Martin Luther King visited Utah. He was the keynote speaker at a convocation at the University of Utah.
While his visit was brief, Crawford says it deserves more attention than it's getting.
He's not surprised. Since the Martin Luther King holiday was declared by President Ronald Reagan, it has been observed somewhat passively in Utah, he says.
For example, for years the state Legislature opened its annual session on the Martin Luther King holiday. Several black advocacy groups criticized lawmakers for that conflict, but Crawford says he actually liked it because it forced Utah's lawmakers to acknowledge the holiday.
Now the Legislature opens a week later, and he says that focus is lost.
Crawford teaches elementary education at Weber State University. In the 1990s he served on committees in Salt Lake City and Ogden charged with working to commemorate King. He was active in getting streets named after King in both cities.
In Ogden, the 1994 proposal to name 24th Street along its entire length as Dr. Martin Luther King Street quickly ran into controversy. Then-councilman Jesse Garcia said he had more phone calls about it than on any other issue, and it wasn't until 1996 the measure was approved.
At that, it was a reduced honor. Martin Luther King Street only extends from I-15 to Jefferson Avenue.
"It was because some of the council members also received some calls and you know the reasons, I don't have to say the reasons," Garcia said last week. "But they'd say things like 'What did Martin Luther King do for Ogden?' "
Then-councilwoman Adele Smith said at the time she received calls from people claiming King was a Communist as well as someone who never visited Utah. She said she would tell people that proving he was a Communist would be difficult, and pointed out that none of the presidents for whom other city streets are named had ever visited Ogden either.
Crawford said he faced the same "King never visited here" complaints in Salt Lake City. That led him to research the matter and discover that King had.
The visit was at the University of Utah in 1961. The university had speakers visit on a regular basis to discuss important issues of the day, and in 1961 King was already nationally famous for his work in the Civil Rights battle.
"While it was important at the time, it was sort of viewed not much different from the other high-profile speakers of the time," Crawford said.
"They thought it was important to invite him in to speak on issues of segregation in the same way you would invite someone to speak on some other issue of the time. So I think the students, while they recognize King was emerging as an important leader, really didn't grasp the transformative nature of this individual. They thought he was just coming to do a keynote address."
The day turned out interesting, not just because of King's speech, Crawford said, but because of a problem with King's flight to town. He missed a connection in Denver, leaving more than 2,000 students sitting for more than an hour.
To fill in, Crawford said, a political science professor at the University of Utah gave a talk he had been preparing called "Does three-fifths equal one?" a reference to the article in the U.S. Constitution that said slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a freeman for purposes of the census.
Following that, King spoke on the Civil Rights movement, citing Supreme Court decisions and calling for legal foundations and civil discourse.
"We just work for first-class citizenship, but never use second-class methods to attain it," he said.
One now-retired Weber State University professor, Dr. Candadai Seshachari, was a graduate student in the audience.
Crawford, in a paper on King's visit, quotes Seshachari saying how "King captivated the audience. How he artfully used a combination of biblical symbolism and parables to help us understand black socio-political conditions of the day and our role in helping to alleviate those conditions."
Seshachari went on to write numerous articles about King during his academic career.
Crawford said Utahns need to better appreciate the impact King's work did have on their lives.
"He was, in my view -- and you're speaking to someone who is very biased -- at least transformational," Crawford said. "At least for those students who were involved in facilitating his visit. But more importantly, when King showed up to do his keynote address, people were clearly impressed and clearly moved by what he had to say, because they stayed" despite the delay.
"And then I think Utahns should be very reflective about the importance of owning the King holiday as something important to them because King's legacy goes at least as far back as that visit. So I think we should stop being very superficial about how we celebrate the holiday."