Dr. King and the Professor: MLK’s Visit to Sac State

SACRAMENTO -- The most extraordinary day of Professor Dean Dorn's 80 years began with what seemed like the most mundane of errands -- picking up a visitor from the airport.

"I mean the prop plane taxied up, the airline officials lowered the stair, he came down the stairs and he came through the door," Dorn said.

Dorn stood there, nerves wracked, about to meet an international icon.

"This is exactly how I met Dr. Martin Luther King. It was exactly like this with no one around, no one paying attention," he said. "We were just two people meeting."

Dr. King arrived in Sacramento with no entourage, no media and no security, just one other colleague. That, more than anything, is what Dorn remembers about the 25 minutes he spent with King on Oct. 16, 1967.

"That's who Dr. King was. He didn't want fanfare, he didn't want accolades, he didn't want an audience of supplicants and clappers," he told FOX40.

Dorn says he, King and King's colleague hurried to the car. They were running late for King's first-ever speech at Sacramento State.

So what did the 30-year-old professor of race and ethnicity and 39-year-old civil rights pioneer say to each other? Same as any strangers -- small talk.

"He asked me about Sacramento," Dorn said. "We commented about the beautiful October day."

But they soon got to the core of why King was invited to speak at Sacramento State.

"Even though it was suburban and mostly white, there was some involvement in the civil rights movement, but mostly recently in teach-ins against the war in Vietnam and that perked him up" Dorn said.

Months earlier, King came out fiercely against the Vietnam War and continued to expand his message past racial equality to include economic injustice. Some supporters turned on him.

But backlash for speaking truth to power was not new territory to King and he delivered his controversial anti-war message to a record crowd of about 8,000 at Sacramento State.

Dorn was transported back in time while watching footage of King's speech.

"Oh my goodness," he said. "That's me as a young man."

Dorn sat on the stage, just feet away from one of the most transformational figures in American history.

But Dorn's wonder quickly gave way to regret.

"Because he died. Assassinated at age 39. Think of what could have happened if he had kept living," he said.

King was murdered less than six months after Dorn picked him up at Sacramento Executive Airport.

Dorn can't help but see a connection between King's murder on a hotel balcony while casually meeting with friends to the extraordinarily ordinary way he arrived in Sacramento.

"I think he had an openness," Dorn said. "He had to risk it and he did. And we have to honor that."