The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has inspired generations of in the United States and around the world. A martyr for civil rights and the struggle, King was a voice for peace in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.
After his death, his widow Coretta Scott King lobbied for a national holiday in remembrance of her husband. On Nov. 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan established the third Monday of every January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Today as we honor Dr. King, we are sharing the stories from the obituaries of some whose lives overlapped, at least briefly, with the life of MLK. Here are a few foot soldiers in the struggle for civil rights who shared a moment in time with Martin Luther King Jr.
On Dec. 5, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. That night, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed and King was elected president. Zelma Harris was there.
Zelma was one of thousands on the evening of December 5, 1955 who gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for the protest for the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Zelma with her 3 young children, participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for 381 days.
In February 1957, King and Rev. E.V. Hill were two of seven black pastors who formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:
Born in Texas, Hill lived in a log cabin with his family. He went on to attend Prairie View A & M University and became pastor of Mt. Corinth Missionary Baptist Church in Houston at 21. While there, he was one of seven black pastors who joined King in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was to become central to the civil rights struggle. Hill nominated King as president of the conference.
Birmingham was a battleground for the civil rights movement. In the spring of 1963, King was arrested and jailed along with Clemon and others:
Joe Louis Clemon was a foot soldier in the Birmingham civil rights movement. In his senior year at Westfield High School, Joe led a group of students to Dr. Martin Luther King’s demonstrations in downtown Birmingham. Assigned to desegregate the all-white restaurant of Holiday Inn Motel, his group was arrested when it non-violently refused to leave the premises without being served. In the spring of 1963, he was jailed for more than two weeks, during which from the same jail Dr. King wrote his legendary Letter from the Birmingham Jail. His “sit-in” conviction was the lead case testing the constitutionality of Alabama’s trespass law in the context of the Birmingham demonstrations.
When King was released from jail, James Armstrong was there to give him a ride:
Mr. Armstrong was active in the Birmingham civil rights movement and school desegregation cases together with the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and participated as an organizer for the 1963 protests at planning meetings held at the A.G. Gaston Motel. He provided the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a haircut on several occasions, and a pickup ride from the Birmingham jail. Mr. Armstrong was jailed while protesting Jim Crow laws on numerous occasions. He received numerous awards for his community service.
On Aug. 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Sarah Andrews Morrison was in the crowd that day:
During her years in Philadelphia, she joined the Zion Baptist Church under the leadership of Dr. Leon Sullivan, where she was an active volunteer working at various voting polls throughout the Philadelphia community. An advocate for civil rights, Morrison participated in the march on Washington during the civil rights movement. Last September, during a family reunion held in Washington, D.C., she once again visited and toured the historical site and spoke of the many changes in her lifetime for the rights of all people.
On Mar. 7, 1965, state and local police attacked King and his followers as they marched from Selma to Montgomery. Peter Flint was among the 600 marchers attacked and injured “Bloody Sunday”:
Peter was involved with civil rights & human rights throughout his life. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. His son Norman still remembers photos of him being drug by his feet by white police officers bleeding from the head. This only made him more determined to accomplish his goal. To have equal rights for all.
On Apr. 3, 1968 when King gave what would be his last speech, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, Fr. Atkins was on the rostrum with him. The following day, Fr. Atkins conducted an informal service for King after his assassination:
Fr. Atkins played an important role of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. As part of his parish assignment in Tennessee, he worked on behalf of the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. This involved daily protest marches and mass meetings that ran far into the night. Fr. Atkins was on the rostrum, very close to Dr. Martin Luther King as he delivered his famous speech, “I have gone to the mountain top,” at Mason Temple in Memphis. He described this as one of the most memorable experiences of his life. When Dr. King was assassinated, Fr. Atkins led the planning of and conducted the Memorial Service on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in the period of mourning before the formal funeral in Atlanta.
The night of King’s assassination, Dr. McDonough was called to the King home:
One of the King children needed Dr. McDonough, the family’s pediatrician. “It was Bernice, who was the baby then,” said Linda Spivey of Atlanta, a nurse for the doctor for nearly three decades. “Coretta had called. She wanted to get the child attended to. He was the doctor for the King children until they became adults.” “He went over and stayed a good long time,” said Alice Wight McDonough, his wife of 55 years. I remember he said how sad it was over there.”
Holmes assisted the Memphis sheriff with public relations in the days following King’s assassination. Later, he was involved in the trial of James Earl Ray:
Subsequently, he was asked by Sheriff Morris and Criminal Court Judge W. Preston Battle to prepare a plan for seating the many local, national and international media representatives at the trial of James Earl Ray, King’s killer. After months of preparation, Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, where he died. Following the abbreviated trial, author Gerold Frank interviewed Holmes at great length before publishing his definitive book on the case called “An American Death.”
Thank you, Dr. King, for the impact you had on countless lives.