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Viewpoints: 55 years later, King’s words resonate

By Paul “Pete” Carroll

It was late in the afternoon of a January day in 1962. I had been a reporter for only four months. A call came to the Bridgeport Herald in Connecticut that Martin Luther King Jr. was available for an interview at the Stratfield Hotel.

The city editor summoned me, the only reporter present in the newsroom.

This was a year before King was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., and issued his celebrated “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” followed in August 1963 by the March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was already the leading advocate of applying nonviolence in the civil rights crusade in the South.

King headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was using Mahatma Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolence in the integration struggle. As a spiritual leader, King was co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

He spoke later that evening at a rally sponsored by the local NAACP branch and an interdenominational, ministerial alliance. His emotion-packed speech showed he deserved his reputation as the best black orator in America.

An aide answered my knock on his hotel room door. King was a man of average height who was considerably more soft-spoken than the emotion-packed speaker at the rally that evening.

But his message was the same: “To tell Connecticut of our struggle in the South, and of the significant strides we are making.”

His religious convictions, though unexpressed, were clearly evident. He spoke vehemently, but realistically and unemotionally, and without rancor to his opponents.

I asked him to comment on a recent report in Time magazine that many Negroes found him more interested in making speeches around the country than in fighting segregation, and that he was indulging in “status seeking.”

King replied calmly: “I would like to spend more time in civil rights action, with my family, and with my church, but I have the problem of keeping an organization going. As for status seeking, if that’s the only impression I’ve given the country, I’d better give up.”

King offered a realistic and logical rationale for his movement, much more moderate in tone than his rostrum oratory.

“Negroes cannot expect to be handed full civil rights on a silver platter. They must show they want them and work for them. They can’t expect others to be more concerned about it than they are,” he said.

King declared that both legal and direct action should be applied against segregation: “Nonviolent direct action is necessary to supplement the court battle.”

On segregation, Northern style, King told me: “This is a national problem, not limited to any region or section. In the North, it is still most apparent in housing discrimination and employment. As long as these remain, you will have discrimination on a larger scale.”

He denied that black adults were not interested in the direct-action movement, and that students were carrying it out alone.

“The movement primarily involves the kids, but the adults support it, too,” he said. “Our boycotts [against merchants discriminating against blacks], for instance, have been successful, although they require the support of the entire adult community, since students have little purchasing power.”

My story ran the following Sunday under the headline: “What Makes the Rev. Martin Luther King tick? Says Negroes Must Fight Their Own Battles.”

Years later, as a Buffalo News reporter trying to impress a very dignified woman, well-respected in the black community here, I told her I had interviewed King.

“I marched with Dr. King,” she responded quietly. If memory serves, she was Geneva B. Scruggs, chairwoman of a committee advising Erie County government on health services.

Paul “Pete” Carroll is a retired reporter for The Buffalo News.

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