Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Don McEvoy Remembers Martin Luther King
Close Friend Speaks About King’s Life at U-U Church in Hillcrest
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
You’ve got to say one thing about Don McEvoy: he’s got a great sense of theatre. Instead of coming forward to the stage and speaking from the podium of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest January 13, he began his talk about his close friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from a seat in the audience. He identified himself as “Don McEvoy from Oklahoma City” and asked the same question he’d asked King the first time they ever met, at a public forum on the nascent civil rights movement in January 1956. Then, and only then, did he come forward, ascend the stage and give his recollection of King’s response.
The question had to do with whether King felt any responsibility for “Negroes” (though that was the term of King’s time for his people and the one King himself used, now that the rules of political correctness have burned through “Black” and now settled on “African-American” the word itself dated McEvoy’s presentation) who committed acts of violence against whites and claimed to be inspired by the civil rights movement. King’s answer — typical of the wry sense of humor McEvoy recalled in him that’s almost disappeared from the official portrait now that King has become a martyr and virtual saint — was that he’d take responsibility for Black people’s violence against whites as soon as whites started taking responsibility for all white people’s violence against Blacks.
McEvoy, then also a minister, first met King when he went to Montgomery, Alabama to check out the civil rights movement and this eloquent preacher who had emerged as its principal spokesperson. He reviewed the familiar history of the Montgomery bus boycott that started it all, but threw in a few fresh facts. Among them was that the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had already decided, a year and a half after the national NAACP had won the Brown v. Board of Education case declaring school segregation unconstitutional, to file a lawsuit against racial segregation on Montgomery’s buses.
“They were looking for a test case, and in November 1955 they thought they had one,” McEvoy recalled. “When they found out the woman who’d agreed to be their test case was 16 years old, unmarried and pregnant, they decided they wouldn’t use her.” As all the world knows, the woman who finally did emerge to lead the challenge was Rosa Parks, who was everything the 16-year-old hadn’t been: 42, quiet, serious, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, who hadn’t been in trouble with the law before December 4, 1955, when on her way home from work she was accosted by a white bus passenger who invoked his legal right to demand that she get up from her seat to make room for him. She refused; the bus driver stopped the bus and threatened to call the police; the police duly arrived and Parks was arrested — and, McEvoy noted, “the world hasn’t been the same since.”
According to McEvoy, the leaders of Montgomery’s African-American community knew that if they could call a boycott of the bus system and make it stick, they could cripple the city’s transportation system since 90 to 95 percent of Montgomery’s bus riders were Black. What they couldn’t agree on was who should lead the call. “The community leadership was fought over by two people; E. D. Nixon, a 60-year-old Pullman porter who was head of the Montgomery NAACP; and Ralph Abernathy, minister of the largest Black Baptist church in Montgomery,” McEvoy recalled. “They decided to call a mass meeting but couldn’t agree on a featured speaker. Abernathy said it had to be a minister, and Nixon said, ‘If it has to be a minister, it has to be mine,’ and that was Martin Luther King.”
McEvoy stressed that King’s emergence as the most visible leader of the Montgomery bus boycott — and, for the next 12 years, the broader African-American civil rights movement that emerged from it — was pure happenstance. “There was nothing in his background to indicate that he was destined for greatness,” McEvoy said. “There’s almost a mystical sense I have that if Rosa Parks hadn’t chosen that particular night to refuse to give up her seat, we might never have heard of Martin Luther King.”
King and McEvoy didn’t see each other again until 1961. “He had moved to Atlanta, his home town, and I had left the ministry to work for the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which sent me to Atlanta on assignment,” McEvoy recalled. “The first Sunday we lived it Atlanta, we made our way to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was the minister, and it was thrilling to hear that great pulpit orator preach in his own church. That was also my first meeting with Martin Luther King, Sr., an even more unforgettable character than his son. While his son was preaching, he sat in a pulpit chair and carried on a conversation with him through the whole sermon. The playful byplay between the two men was a joy to behold. His dad would say, ‘You know, that boy shows signs of becoming a pretty good preacher if he’ll just do what I tell him.’”
As exciting as it was to hear Martin Luther King preach from the pulpit of his own church, McEvoy said, “It didn’t compare to hearing him at a freedom rally.” McEvoy had that experience in 1963, during the campaign to integrate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama — where sheriff Eugene Connor, appropriately nicknamed “Bull,” turned fire hoses on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators and, along with Alabama governor George Wallace, became the worldwide public face of white resistance.
“The first week I was in Birmingham, I went to the 16th Street Baptist Church for the rally and watched the crowd, many of whom were dressed in a way that showed they were coming in directly from laboring jobs,” McEvoy recalled. “There was a half-hour of gospel music and then the speakers, including every minister in attendance and the staff members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, King’s organization). Then Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend, took half an hour to introduce the man everyone had already been waiting 3 1/2 hours to hear. When Martin Luther King finally came out everyone chanted, ‘Black Moses! Black Moses!,’ except for one old woman with a voice I’ll never forget, who said, ‘Jesus! I knew you’d come back and I knew you’d be Black!’ That’s when I realized I’d never know King as well as his own people did.”
Not that they didn’t get to know each other as one suburban family to another, dipping their toes into integration at the most basic levels. “Our children played together,” McEvoy recalled, “and when the Canadian Broadcasting Company came to do a documentary on King, the McEvoy family were the token whites invited to dinner. On our daughter Melanie’s ninth birthday, the guests at her party were her friends from school and Yolanda, Martin and Coretta King’s daughter. Melanie’s best friend at school was Kathy, and at eight she had already decided to be a missionary to Africa. The morning after the party, Kathy told Melanie they could no longer be friends because her parents had forbidden her to play with her. Melanie’s trauma didn’t last long, but I’ve often wondered how Kathy ever reconciled wanting to be a missionary to Africa with the scandal.”
When a new, moderate mayor took office in Atlanta and ordered the reopening of the city’s public swimming pools — which the previous mayor had ordered drained rather than comply with a court order that Black as well as white people be allowed to swim in them — the King and McEvoy families were the first people in town to use the pools. “We took Martin Luther King III and Yolanda, Ralph Abernathy’s daughter and our three kids, and we were the only people who went there to swim that day,” McEvoy said. “There were police to provide security, and white people who were looking on not so much with hatred as with disorientation. Black folks had always been there, but they’d always been part of the background, like trees — and now the trees had begun to move.”
McEvoy told a number of anecdotes to put some flesh on King’s bones and show that he was a multidimensional human being, not a plaster saint. He recalled that King was “a real pool shark,” and when he was worried that some Blacks in a community he was doing civil-rights organizing in might get drunk and disrupt the demonstrations, he would go to the beer halls and pool halls, impress them with his pool-playing skills, “and try to get them to go to the demonstration — or at least not do anything to interfere.” He also told some of King’s jokes, including one incident in which he and King ate at Atlanta’s fanciest hotel the day after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places. “The manager gave us the menus himself,” McEvoy recalled, “and King said, ‘I see they have cornbread, but I don’t see turnip greens and chit’lin’s. I thought you white folks were ready for integration!’”
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964, McEvoy said, “A group of us were determined that the city would do something official to honor him” — an idea easier said than done, especially in a city most of whose white leaders still considered King “a radical, a troublemaker, a Communist and a pariah.” The person who finally put the dinner together was Helen Bollard, a close friend and advisor to Atlanta’s mayor, who got the city’s largest ballroom for the event and got the choir of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, to perform. At first the choir was supposed to sing Morehouse’s school song, but Atlanta’s leading rabbi, who was on the dinner committee, and the choir director secretly worked out a change in the program and the choir sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Bollard also nipped in the bud a threat by Atlanta’s white business community to boycott the dinner and blacklist anyone who dared attend. She got the New York Times to do an article about the boycott threat, and while the article didn’t name names, it did say that “a prominent Atlanta banker” was its principal organizer. The article got David Rockefeller, whose Chase Manhattan company owned the bank the “prominent Atlanta banker” ran, to get him to call off the boycott — aided by an even more bizarre bit of persuasion. Haiti’s notoriously brutal dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier also read the New York Times story and told the banker that if he went ahead with a boycott of a dinner honoring Martin Luther King, he could forget about being allowed to dock his yacht in Port-au-Prince on his next yachting trip through the Caribbean.
The mood of the evening turned more somber as McEvoy talked about the last three years of King’s life — between “the last great victory of the civil rights movement” in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and his murder in Memphis, Tennessee three years later. “King came to Chicago and found out it could be as racist as the South,” McEvoy said. “He began to speak out against the Viet Nam war and about economic issues and poverty. Many of his white liberal supporters turned away and said he should just stick to civil rights and leave those other issues alone.”
McEvoy recalled being summoned to Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968 to help King set up a meeting with the mayor of Memphis to settle a strike of African-American sanitation workers. By then the National Conference of Christians and Jews had reassigned him to their home office in New York, but his wife and children were still in Atlanta. McEvoy had called the Memphis mayor on April 3 to arrange a secret meeting between the mayor and King. “At noon the next day, I boarded a flight to Memphis, and 30 minutes from our destination the pilot announced that Martin Luther King had been shot,” McEvoy said. “The passengers erupted with jubilation and rebel cheers.”
The presentation concluded with McEvoy’s recollection of the service at King’s home church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, the first Sunday after King’s assassination. “Nothing in their bulletin said anything about Martin Luther King having been shot,” McEvoy said. “His brother, A. D. King, came from his own church in Louisville and preached in his stead. Their father said, ‘I guess you folks are surprised to see me here. I came here to say just one thing only: be careful what you pray for. I prayed to the Lord for Him to use my boys in any way He felt would be of service, and now I want to take that back.”
McEvoy said that the quip from King’s father had “rescued me” and fulfilled his own grief at the death of his friend. He decided not to stay in Atlanta for the official funeral, and instead head back to his organization’s office in New York, where, he said (quoting Robert Frost), “There was work to do, promises to go, and miles and miles to go before we sleep. And there still are.”