King had been invited to give the sermon by Francis B. Sayre Jr., the dean of Washington National Cathedral, to help lower tensions ahead of the civil rights leader’s Poor People’s Campaign, which was to kick off in D.C. in late April. King had planned to have at least 3,000 demonstrators camped out on the National Mall in April, with hundreds of thousands of protesters arriving on the weekend of June 15-16 to demand “jobs or income now.”
“Dr. King is coming here to hold up the poor of America to the conscience of Christians,” Sayre said in a news release announcing King’s appearance, according to files in the cathedral archives. “If that is the aim of the demonstration, then I say, God bless him. I welcome the fact that Dr. King, almost alone among the many leaders, still places hope in that conscience rather than in violence and in the power of the gun.”
Sayre was the grandson of President Woodrow Wilson and was born in the White House in 1915. But he broke sharply with Wilson’s record on race, which had included resegregating many federal agencies. Sayre was a forceful voice against segregation, and he joined King on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
But King was a controversial figure at the time, in part because of his strong opposition to the Vietnam War, and some people objected to Sayre’s inviting him. “It appears obvious that King’s purposes are definitely racial (one group only) and that the goal is to stir up more racial tension and anxiety which can only lead to disaster,” one woman from Baltimore, a self-described “confirmed Episcopalian in good standing,” wrote to Sayre in a letter in the archives.
And then later, reporting on the Cathedral memorial service after King’s assassination, which was attended by President Lyndon B. Johnson and most of the Washington establishment: