Claudia Polley was around 10 years-old when her parents brought her to the Fall Creek YMCA in Indianapolis to hear a speech from Martin Luther King Jr.
The date was December 11, 1959. It was King’s second appearance in Indianapolis — he’d spoken a year earlier at the Cadle Tabernacle on December 12th of 1958.
Both events were organized by the Senate Avenue YMCA’s Monster Meetings, a historic series of talks organized by Black leaders in Indianapolis.
The Monster Meetings started in the early 1900s and were held regularly in the city until the early 1960s. Other prominent figures featured at the Monster Meetings include Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Thurgood Marshall.
King’s 1959 speech at The Fall Creek YMCA was titled “Remaining Awake Through A Revolution.” There are no known recordings of King’s address, but local papers provided extensive coverage.
“America is in danger of producing guided missiles and misguided men,” King told the audience of 900. Adding, “You can hear the distant rumblings of discontent from those who have been segregated and humiliated for centuries, crying out for freedom and determined to end their exploitation.”
When I spoke with the historian and preservationist Claudia Polley, she couldn’t recall the exact themes Kings addressed during his 1959 Indianapolis appearance. Instead, she recalled the aura and inspiration King brought to his Indiana audience.
That inspiration eventually led Polley to create the Urban Legacy Lands Initiative, an organization dedicated to preserving Black history in Indiana.
I spoke with Polley last year, and she shared her memories of listening to Dr. King.
KYLE LONG: In March of 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the then newly constructed Fall Creek YMCA.
You told me your parents thought it was important for you to be exposed to this and you got to see Dr. King speak at the Fall Creek YMCA. What do you remember about that anything you want to share about that experience?CLAUDIA POLLEY: I remember that well, one, Dr. King was an amazing personage. And his aura was astounding. Now I was all of just 10 years old, even I'm not even sure I turned 10 at that point.
And it was wonderful to look around at all the adults that were there and how intent they were at listening to what he had to say. Because Indianapolis at that point was trying to figure out how it fit in this movement, this freedom movement that was happening in the United States and Indianapolis was never out in front in terms of being rebellious.
But the powers that be had decided that it was time for Indianapolis to move forward, there should be a lot of the de facto segregation that was in place that needed to stop. And so having Dr. King there, having him there for a monster meeting at the newly opened Fall Creek YMCA was pretty extraordinary.
And what I remember is the feeling I remember a little bit about what he said but it was the feeling of purpose that was in the room. It was the extraordinary feeling of of the aura that he gave off from the stage that inspired all of us to do better, and to figure out how we fit into this new world.
Long: For WFYI, I'm Kyle Long.