Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
He had a vision and a mission
HISTORY: FIRST-HAND MEMORIES OF MLK
BY EDIE GROSS
Norfolk’s New Calvary Baptist Church buzzed with excitement that Sunday in 1966 as members awaited the arrival of a special speaker.
Shawn Lawrence, who was 14, didn’t know who was coming. But whoever it was was a big deal.
Hundreds of people lined the street outside the church, hoping for a glimpse of this person. As a junior usher, Lawrence had been dispatched to the church’s front steps to watch for the speaker’s entourage and then send word to the other ushers.
But the teen was thirsty. So he left his post momentarily to get a drink.
“I’m coming back down the hall and four men are walking toward me. The shortest one in the group says, ‘Hi, young man. How are you doing?’ I shook his hand and said, ‘How are you?’” recalled Lawrence, who then hurried back to the front steps to watch for the mystery speaker.
Only by now, the crowds out front had thinned. Had he missed the man’s arrival? Worried, Lawrence headed into the sanctuary.
“I look on the pulpit and there is Martin Luther King, and I’m thinking, ‘Damn, I just shook his hand,’” said Lawrence, who lives in Fredericksburg.
“I knew who Martin Luther King was, but I’d never seen him except on television,” he said. “You know how when a person is larger than life, you expect them to be 7 feet tall with a cape on? His voice made him seem so big.”
King was 5 feet, 6½ inches tall—shorter than Lawrence at the time. But his impact was anything but tiny.
By the time he arrived at Lawrence’s mother’s church, he’d led the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.; founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work, which spurred passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later.
That Sunday, he was in Norfolk to help install the church’s new pastor, Milton Reid, a friend who had founded the Virginia chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Forty-five years later, Lawrence doesn’t remember everything King said. “It’s one of those things where you don’t know it’s history until later,” he said.
But like other Fredericksburg-area residents who had firsthand encounters with King, Lawrence said he’s never forgotten the electric sound of King’s voice and his message of unity.
“He was just normal, just a regular guy. But it was his voice. It’s just, it left me with an effect—I’ll be 60 in June—that has lasted since I was 14,” he said. “I got to hear him. This wasn’t on a stereo. This was live.”
‘A VISION AND A MISSION’
Even in King’s day, most people were exposed to his messages via video and audio clips and newspaper accounts rather than firsthand encounters. But several Fredericksburg-area residents were fortunate enough to hear him—or as in Lawrence’s case, meet him—in person.
Caldonia Moore studied math and science at Alabama State University in Montgomery in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Around 1960, some of her classmates held a sit-in at a lunch counter at a nearby Woolworths. They were thrown in jail.
The next day, Moore and hundreds of classmates marched to the state capitol, a little more than a mile north of the campus.
King saw coverage of the march on TV and, worried for the students’ safety, traveled to Montgomery to meet with them.
In the Tullibody Hall auditorium, he urged the students to travel in groups and to protest nonviolently, even as police with billy clubs ringed the campus.
“After seeing us, he knew we needed some education on how to protest. He told us, ‘Do not fight back because if you fight back, you may get annihilated. You all don’t have any weapons. They have weapons,’” recalled Moore, who lives in North Stafford. “He was such a dynamite speaker.”
It was a scary time. Moore and her dormitory mates endured bomb threats regularly. Some of her friends’ parents, fearing for their safety, took them home.
King’s visit, during which he marched with the students, gave them confidence, she said.
“When Dr. King came, that really meant a lot. We felt more secure,” said Moore, a retired teacher. “He said, ‘We will overcome.’ He had us sing that. We could not see integration, but he could see it. Some people said that would never happen, but Dr. King did see all of that.”
Jesse Clear of Spotsylvania County also marched with King, but in a rather different capacity. After civil rights activist James Meredith was shot during his June 1966 March Against Fear from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., King vowed to continue the trek.
After he and his fellow marchers were attacked, King contacted his friends in the labor union movement. Clear and his father-in-law, both members of the National Maritime Union out of New Orleans, were among those who responded and acted as undercover security for the marchers.
By day, the union members—comprising every race—blended in with the activists. But unlike the activists, they hadn’t taken a pledge of nonviolence.
So when troublemakers showed up at night to attack the group again, Clear and his friends, armed with everything from fists to firearms, organized a “welcoming reception,” one he thinks the attackers probably never forgot.
“They made a grave miscalculation,” said Clear. After that, the marchers continued in peace to Mississippi’s capital.
King personally thanked the union members for their help, said Clear, who remembers him as a courageous man.
“He had total, total guts. He had no fear of anything,” said Clear. “He had a vision and a mission. The mission is still a work in progress. But he did advance the cause, that’s for sure.”
MESSAGE STILL RELEVANT
Ann Walker’s encounter with King was a bit more accidental. The Locust Grove woman was sitting in French class at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1965 when a classmate mentioned that King was chatting with students in a nearby auditorium.
“Since I had time to kill between classes, I thought, ‘Why not?’” said Walker.
The gathering was informal. Students came and went as their schedules allowed and asked King about a variety of topics, from the war in Vietnam to how he felt about interracial dating—a hot issue on the integrated campus.
“He was asked his feelings on this subject and concluded his comments by saying that the black man was more interested in being the white man’s brother than his brother-in-law,” recalled Walker, who ultimately had to leave to make it to her next class. Later, she said, she wished she’d stayed.
“He had a beautiful voice, a level, calm talking voice, just very soothing,” she said. “It was just beautiful to hear him.”
Steve Rabson watched King’s “I Have a Dream” speech live on television in August 1963. But seeing him in person nearly two years later was a thrill, he said.
Rabson had graduated from the University of Michigan in May 1965 and was home visiting his parents in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a month later when King gave the commencement address at nearby Antioch College.
Rabson’s childhood piano teacher, who was the head of Antioch’s music department, played the organ for the event, which Rabson attended with his mother. King spoke against racial injustice, poverty and war, particularly the Vietnam War, recalled Rabson, who now lives in Fredericksburg.
“One of the things that impressed me was how his speech was like a sermon in its delivery and content, but a sermon in which the message was moral rather than religious,” he said. “I remember how resonant his voice was. It really had authority.”
Shawn Lawrence said listening to recordings of King’s speeches still chokes him up.
He remembers when white adults egged his school bus as it arrived at a predominantly white junior high school, when he couldn’t sit at the lunch counter at Kress department store and when he had to pay a $1.50 poll tax and pass a reading test to register to vote at Norfolk City Hall.
The country’s come a long way, but King’s message of unity and brotherhood is just as relevant now as it was then, said Lawrence.
“He wasn’t speaking just to unite black people. He was speaking to unite all people,” he said.
“It was about getting people to understand it doesn’t matter what boat you got here in, we’re all in the same boat now. Either we paddle together and we move forward, or everybody paddles in their own direction and we go in circles.”
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428