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Martin Luther King and Me

Martin Luther King and Me

Monday May 26 2014

As the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Bill approaches, the Rev Iain Whyte describes his encounter with the influential Christian leader of the movement that inspired change

 

“Mr Whyte, how do people in Scotland see our struggle?”

The questioner was a much smaller man than I expected.

Dr Martin Luther King gave me an interview in his office in Atlanta, fifty years ago in August. I had just completed my first year at Trinity College, Glasgow and was spending a summer based in Columbia Seminary near Atlanta, travelling each weekend to take pulpit supply in North Alabama Presbytery. The introduction to Dr King came through an earlier conversation with Canon L John Collins in London, the genial pipe-smoking founder of CND and of Christian Action where I had been a volunteer for the South African Defence and Aid Fund.

I entered the South on a Greyhound Bus on July 2 when Dr King was in Washington observing President Lyndon Johnston sign the Civil Rights Bill, that first national legislation to extend human rights to African Americans, then termed ‘negroes’. That same evening Lestor Maddox, later to be Governor of Georgia, announced that he had axe handles to give to any in his restaurant who wanted to assist him to resist integration.

In Columbia Seminary, then an entirely white campus, I found a variety of reactions. Many young Southerners found themselves torn between recognising the evils of this system, that was another form of slavery, and being loyal to traditions in which they had been brought up.

I discovered another angle when I went to have dinner with a judge. “I hope you’ll go back to Scotland,” he said, “And tell them things aren’t as bad here as the world makes out. We do a lot for our negroes, you know.”

I indicated that in those few weeks I had seen much that supported all that Dr King claimed. I was never invited back.

North Alabama Presbytery was a mixture of urban and rural congregations. In Guntersville I visited a Sunday School held in a poor white area, which had echoes of a Steinbeck novel. The appeal of the segregationist Governor George Wallace to those with so little but their race was very obvious.

In Gadsden the elders discussed what action they might take if ‘they’ (negroes) tried to enter the church to test the law. I vowed to be resolute and leave the pulpit and church (and probably return home) if any attempt was made to deny entry to the service. It didn’t happen. Martin Luther King’s dictum that eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week was all too apparent, and sadly still is the case.

Dr King encouraged me to visit Clifford and Virginia Durr, lawyer and activist in Montgomery, Alabama, when King was minister of Dexter Avenue Church there. “They are very isolated,” he said. “Few whites will associate with them and negroes are afraid to befriend them.” Both were in their sixties and had a proud involvement in Civil Rights cases in the McCarthy era and when Clifford represented Rosa Parks in the landmark case which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1958.

“We’ve a long way to go,” said Dr King before I left. He emphasised that the real test would be when African Americans would take their places in the corridors of political power.

When I watched President Obama being inaugurated 44 years later, I couldn’t help thinking that he was standing on the shoulders of courageous people like Albert Peters who had ‘seen it all’ and endured. I remembered also Martin Luther King’s friends the Durrs, who had sacrificed much.

This is an abridged version of the feature in June's Life and Work. Subscribe