Sioux Falls Family Shares Special Connection to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Monday is Martin Luther King Junior Day, a nationally recognized holiday that celebrates the historic civil rights activist that spoke out against racial discrimination. In 1961, his mission for equity led him here to Sioux Falls.

It was a night Emma Armstrong would never forget. Armstrong and some other family members gathered at St. John Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, a safe haven from a world that only saw in black and white at the time, where she spoke with the groundbreaking Martin Luther King Junior.

“I remember her saying that he told her that time that in our lifetime, there will be a black president and she said ‘no way’ and sure enough, Obama came along,” said Bob Harris, Armstrong’s stepson.

According to Harris, Dr. King gave a speech at hotel earlier that day, but he wasn’t allowed to stay afterward due to racial segregation laws. Instead, he headed to the church where he had a close-knit talk with about seven people.  

“I don’t think she really realized what an important figure he was until later on,” said Harris. “I think if other people had known, there would have been more people there.”

The passion for activism runs in the family. After hearing about his aunts and his stepmother meeting with Doctor King in Sioux Falls, Harris now is the president of the South Dakota African American History Museum.

“To help not only African American people but minority people as a whole,” said Harris. “ Native Americans, Asian Americans, people that are oppressed. We all need the same opportunity to improve our lives.”

While Dr. King may no longer be alive, Harris has a powerful message for young people that is timeless:

“They have to step up and let their voice be heard,” said Harris. “The reason why we got to where we are now is because people spoke up and said no we deserve the same as anybody else.”

Emma Armstrong is 101 years old and lives with other family members in Atlanta, after she was a prominent leader in the then-Sioux Falls NAACP chapter for years.

You can see the Martin Luther King Junior exhibit at the South Dakota African American History Museum at the Washington Pavillion in downtown Sioux Falls.

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