This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Post.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Johnson C. Smith University on Sept. 21, 1967 as part of the Charlotte school’s centennial celebration. Credit: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
Although North Carolina was considered racially progressive among southern states in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. spent considerable time advocating for equality and justice in the Tar Heel State.
The civil rights leader made numerous appearances in urban areas like Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro, he also visited smaller cities like Rocky Mount and Asheville.
“If you look at the times King came to Charlotte, or even North Carolina, he often made reference to the fact that people in the Deep South looked to North Carolina for inspiration,” historian Willie Griffin told The Post in 2021.
According to the Asheville Museum of History, King twice visited western North Carolina during key points in the movement. In January 1964, King visited Black Mountain for a Southern Christian Leadership Conference planning retreat at In-The-Oaks. Its significance was underscored by the timing – two months after the assassination of President John Kennedy and congressional inertia over federal civil rights legislation.
In July, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights act of 1964 into law with King on hand for the ceremony. King won the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
In oral histories recorded in 2003 and 2005 by the Asheville museum, Black Mountain resident Inez Daughtery, a former maid at In-the-Oaks, recounted meeting King at the retreat.
“I know I had a privilege of meeting Martin Luther King,” she said. “And he talked to me at length about the things he was going through and the things he was doing. And he told me, he said, ‘Mrs. Daugherty,’ he said, ‘…the work I’m doing,’ he said, ‘I know that I am going to die a violent death…. And I live prepared to meet my Maker each day because I know that I will be killed.’ And he was. He was.”
On Aug. 21, 1965, King was the keynote speaker at the Christian Action Conference of the Southern Presbyterian Church, where the theme was “The Church and Civil Rights.” He was originally scheduled to open the conference but was diverted to Los Angeles to appeal for peace during rioting in the Watts community. He eventually made it to the conference.
While King was the face of the national civil rights movement in the 1960s, North Carolina’s Black activist community was already mature. The state NAACP, led by Kelly Alexander Sr. of Charlotte, scored significant wins for equal access in the 1940s; Black Charlotteans desegregated public facilities including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Bonnie Brae Golf Course in the late 1950s and in 1960 North Carolina A&T State University students launched the sit-in movement in Greensboro.
“That is not to suggest that King was undeserving,” Griffin said. “He was one of the most thoughtful and important leaders that Black Americans have ever seen. He is what a leader should be. He was constantly evolving and trying to bring people together.”
King visited Durham in 1956, where Alexander, who was the NAACP’s national executive secretary from 1944-85, encouraged him to visit Charlotte, which he did three times prior to his death. He was supposed to come to Charlotte in September 1958, but was stabbed by Izola Curry in New York two days prior to the trip.
Ralph David Abernathy, King’s top lieutenant, went in his place for a speech at the Park Center that signaled evolving rhetoric for King’s best-known speech: “I Have a Dream” delivered at the 1963 March on Washington. King first used those words in North Carolina, during a 1962 address in Rocky Mount.
“Abernathy advocated for a community of good will and brotherhood, where all men can live together in peace and freedom rings from every mountainside—even the southern mountainside,” Griffin said. “He echoed King’s sentiment about North Carolina. He suggested African Americans in the South look upon North Carolina as one of the most progressive southern states, but he warned them that they had not reached the Promised Land just yet, but the fact that African Americans in the late 1950s were seemingly working together with white leaders, he said that showed a sign of good faith.”
In a Sept. 21, 1966, address at Johnson C. Smith University’s Brayboy Gym, King took the podium to warn the audience of the “other America” of white extremists and “good people” who prefer personal comfort and the status quo over justice.
“I’m not only worried about the violence of the bad people,” King said. “I’m gravely disturbed about the silence and indifference of the good people. We must not forget this other America is perpetuated by some nice, gentle white mother who believes more in order than they do in justice and through paternalistic impulses feel that they have the authority to set the timetable for the Negro’s freedom and can always say ‘wait until a more convenient season.’
“This other America is perpetuated by some white politicians who are more concerned about perpetuating a bad political machine than about emerging with bold, imaginative programs grappling with the problems that we face in all of our big cities today. This other America is also perpetuated by some Negro politicians who are more concerned about their self-aggrandizement than they are about committing their lives to the problems of the people that they serve.”
In a 1967 visit to Charlotte to mark JCSU’s centennial, King predicted a long struggle for racial equality. By this time, King’s popularity had fallen even among Black Americans on whose behalf the movement helped secure wins in voting rights and public access, but he was steadfast in his last Charlotte appearance.
“I’m sure somebody’s asking tonight who keeps this other America alive in perpetuity, keep it going,” King said. “I'm sure somebody will say the Ku Klux Klan and that’s certainly true. I don't know any state in the union that’s more familiar with the Ku Klux Klan than the state of North Carolina,” which by that time had more Klan members than any state. On April 4, 1968, the day he was assassinated, King was scheduled to be in Durham to help mobilize Black voters.
He was invited by Dr. Reginald Hawkins, a Charlotte dentist and the first Black person to run for North Carolina governor, and Eva Clayton, a Johnson C. Smith University graduate and activist living in Warren County. Clayton, who was 33 at the time, volunteered to run for Congress that year, was excited about King’s arrival.
“Dr. King had promised to come, and we knew that his coming would inspire more people to be engaged in voter registration,” she told The Post in a 2021 interview.
Instead, King canceled the Durham trip in favor of supporting Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were striking for better wages and work conditions. King’s death sparked violence around the country, including North Carolina. Thirteen fires were set in Durham.
“The very fact that he wanted to come, didn’t come and his death occurred, I can tell you, there was a tremendous response,” said Clayton, who in 1992 became the first Black woman from North Carolina elected to the House of Representatives. “His life, even his death, caused [voter] registration to go up much more than I could have ever done.”
To explore more of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's connections to Charlotte check below: