How Martin Luther King Jr. Mastered the Masters

The following is a guest blog post from Lane Demas, author of Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf.

This groundbreaking history of African Americans and golf explores the role of race, class, and public space in golf course development, the stories of individual black golfers during the age of segregation, the legal battle to integrate public golf courses, and the little-known history of the United Golfers Association (UGA)–a black golf tour that operated from 1925 to 1975. Lane Demas charts how African Americans nationwide organized social campaigns, filed lawsuits, and went to jail in order to desegregate courses; he also provides dramatic stories of golfers who boldly confronted wider segregation more broadly in their local communities. As national civil rights organizations debated golf’s symbolism and whether or not to pursue the game’s integration, black players and caddies took matters into their own hands and helped shape its subculture, while UGA participants forged one of the most durable black sporting organizations in American history as they fought to join the white Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA).

Happy belated Book Birthday to Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf, officially on sale now!

This April marks the sixty-year anniversary of a unique moment when the modern civil rights movement intersected with an unlikely event: the world’s most popular golf tournament.

Martin Luther King Jr. visited Augusta, Georgia, for the first time in the leadup to the 1962 Masters Tournament. On the one hand, the trip made perfect sense. King’s organization—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—had turned its attention to Georgia that year, most notably King’s involvement with a desegregation campaign in Albany. And the tournament was an ideal place to highlight the struggle for Black freedom in the South. Broadcast nationally on CBS since 1956, Masters coverage drew viewers and attendees from around the country, and by the early 1960s it was the leading contributor to a surge in the popularity of professional golf. The tournament highlighted some of the first true modern stars of the game, such as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus. (Player was the defending champion in 1962, Nicklaus was making his professional debut at the tournament, and Palmer would go on to win the following week.) Along with television and print coverage, an estimated gallery of 15,000 watched the final round live.

Moreover, the actions of the previous US President—Dwight Eisenhower—had already linked Augusta and the Masters with the fight for racial integration in the minds of many observers (including some Black Americans). Eisenhower had traveled to play at Augusta National Golf Club an astonishing twenty-nine times while in office from 1953-1961, even as he refused calls from King and other civil rights advocates to deliver a pro-integration speech in the South. In 1960 students from Augusta’s local HBCU, Paine College, organized a protest outside the club as the president played.

Yet King’s visit to Augusta—strategically timed one week before the tournament, as national media and fans were arriving—also signaled uncertainty. The Albany Movement was not going well, with some local activists in the South (especially students) voicing concern over the role of national leaders and organizations in the struggle for Black freedom. Moreover, some SCLC ministers were keen to avoid charges of elitism; it was one thing to champion racial integration in public transportation and accommodations, education, and voting rights. But Black pastors preaching about golf to cooks, maids, and janitors? Golf on Sunday, no less? SCLC Executive Director Wyatt Tee Walker—a young, flamboyant pastor from Virginia—tended to avoid mentioning his passion for golf (as well as yachting) over such concerns, even as he hit the links regularly with other high-profile Black golfers, such as baseball star Jackie Robinson.

On April 3, 1962, King spoke at Augusta’s Tabernacle Baptist Church, where he called on President John F. Kennedy to issue an Executive Order outlawing segregation in public facilities—what movement organizers at the time called “a Second Emancipation Proclamation.” He was introduced by the head of Augusta’s NAACP chapter, Rev. C. S. Hamilton, who encouraged an audience of hundreds “to integrate and attend” the Masters “on Sunday.” (A significant statement coming from a minister at the time.) “Dr. King ‘Masters’ Augusta,” headlined the SCLC’s subsequent press release. “King was accorded an unprecedented response in this western Georgia resort city prior to the internationally famed Masters Golf Tournament.”

The visit quickly faded from the press and remains largely unnoticed today, soon overshadowed by the dizzying array of events, clashes, and daily turmoil that defined the 1960s civil rights movement. (It will be interesting to see how, or if, professional golf recognizes it in the future.) Palmer’s subsequent victory in the tournament received far more attention than King’s visit. Nevertheless, there was coverage in the national press and even more in Georgia. Atlanta television stations aired footage of Hamilton’s call for Black attendees and King’s speech, interspersed with clips of White patrons walking Augusta National’s famed grounds. King’s visit helped legitimize elite golf courses and events (and the game more generally, such as segregated municipal golf courses) as worthy targets of the civil rights movement and local activists.

Nor was this King’s only visit to Augusta in springtime. He made a second trip in the leadup to the 1968 Masters, where on March 23 he delivered remarks to five hundred at Beulah Grove Baptist Church. Just six years had passed but circumstances, of course, had changed. This time King called for a de-escalation of the war in Vietnam and urged supporters to attend the planned Poor People’s March on Washington that summer. “We are not going to Washington to beg,” he proclaimed.

And this time, sadly, news of King would not be overshadowed by anything else, let alone a golf tournament. It would, in fact, be his last speech in the Deep South. Twelve days later—and one week before the 1968 Masters—Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Lane Demas is professor of history at Central Michigan University.