Originally created 01/18/98

Remembering the dream



Nearly two weeks before an assassin's bullet tore from the country one of its most powerful civil rights leaders, Augustans came face to face with the man whose plea for nonviolent change became the battle cry for those who joined his crusade.

Several churches and groups will honor the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday's national holiday of his birth. April 4 marks the 30th anniversary of his death.

On March 23, 1968, more than 3,000 people crowded inside and outside of Beulah Grove Baptist Church, waiting more than four hours for Dr. King to arrive.

The Rev. Nathaniel Irvin, who waited patiently that day, said he feels relieved that he did not miss out on his final opportunity to hear and see up close the man he had come to admire.

"There was an urgency in that visit," said the Rev. Irvin, a retired assistant principal at Jefferson High School in Clearwater. "Looking back, it was like he knew he was about to be assassinated ... It was like a fireball had arrived when he finally got there. Just his appearance there, it electrified us. This was not a normal occasion. It was a prophetic experience."

By the time he got to the church, the crowd had dwindled to about 500. Dr. King told the crowd his trip had been delayed because of a threat made on his life, the Rev. Irvin said.

Some said that March visit was perhaps the most memorable because it was his last to Augusta.

While his dream was still much alive in 1968, the explosive fervor that prompted sit-ins and marches years earlier had settled, giving way to a new cause that Dr. King implored activists to tackle with the same vigor.

The purpose of Dr. King's last visit to Augusta was to raise money for the Poor People's Campaign, an effort to persuade the government to redirect its attention from the Vietnam War and toward socioeconomic problems, said John D. Watkins, an Augusta attorney who helped organize Dr. King's visit.

Dr. King had been traveling throughout the South gathering support for the Poor People's March on Washington he was planning.

"We are not going to Washington to beg. We are going to demand something to be done for the poor people," The Augusta Chronicle quoted Dr. King as telling the crowd.

Interest in the short-lived campaign waned after his death.

Augustans who recalled Dr. King's visit weren't clear on the contents of his speech but remembered well the fire he evoked in people to rally against the Vietnam War and racial inequality that kept blacks in economic shackles.

"He got people aroused," Mr. Watkins said. "He got people out of their lethargic moods. He had this charisma about him. When he opened his mouth, it was like he was a mystic. When you saw him, you saw the reality of the civil rights movement. He was the heart, the soul, the mind of the movement. Without him there was nothing."

Mr. Watkins' former classmates from Savannah State College knew he lived in Augusta and contacted him to help plan a speaking engagement for Dr. King, whom he'd heard speak on other occasions.

Mr. Watkins said the experience of sitting across from Dr. King during dinner, cultivating the brotherhood they shared as members of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and listening to him share his vision is the kind of memory that is cemented forever in his mind.

He remembers laughing with Dr. King, discussing mutual friends and even enjoying a first-name basis with him.

"He said, `How about I call you Wat and you call me Martin.."' Mr. Watkins said. "I remember telling him he was doing a remarkable job, but he was hard on himself, saying he wasn't sure if he was going to reach his goal for the Poor People's Campaign."

The hours Mr. Watkins spent with Dr. King made such an impact on him he wrote a book about it, King's Last Visit to Augusta -- He was Persona Non Grata. The Latin term means a person unwelcomed.

Though Dr. King was heralded by many as their saving grace, there were some blacks who did not embrace his visit to Augusta, Mr. Watkins recounts in his book.

While searching for a church to be host for Dr. King, Mr. Watkins said he found out just how strong the fear and pressure was among the black community.

Some ministers turned down the request to allow Dr. King to speak at their churches, Mr. Watkins said.

"He knew he wasn't wanted in Augusta," Mr. Watkins said. "There were blacks who were connected with the white power structure who didn't want him here. I had threats on my life if I brought him here. I had to think about it long and hard. I'd heard people talking. If you followed King, the feeling was you were unpatriotic because he was against the Vietnam War."

Some blacks who did not relish the idea of change feared that Dr. King's visit would cause more trouble for them, the Rev. Irvin said.

"There were some people who were lukewarm to the idea of him coming," he said. "They thought it might upset the status quo. There were some people who were still in the mode of keeping things the way they were."

Because there was concern for Dr. King's safety, details of his trip were restricted to Mr. Watkins and a few other people who were responsible for getting Dr. King and his aide Ralph D. Abernathy to and from Tabernacle.

Lester Strowbridge, a retired railroad worker, drove the decoy car, while Dr. King rode with Mr. Watkins.

"People were on edge. Mostly older people were afraid a riot would get started up," Mr. Strowbridge remembered. "I wasn't afraid. I was glad to help bring him here. Mostly, people were glad to have him. We never had anybody here to speak to us like he did. He brought people together that day."

Though publicity of the program was limited, word spread quickly enough to get more than enough people to pack the area of the church that seated less than a 800 people at that time, Mr. Watkins said.

"It spread by word of mouth..." he said. "But there were so many people there you couldn't drive up and down the streets. People were all up and down the railroad tracks in front of the church."

Though people were getting anxious waiting for him to arrive, the 500 who stayed felt the opportunity to hear Dr. King share his dream in person was worth it, said Rosa Vernon, the wife of the late B.I. Vernon, then pastor of Beulah Grove.

"Even though he was late, they didn't move," she recalled. "We just sang and talked. When he got there, it was something just to see him in person. He was a powerful man. When you saw him, you knew he was God-sent. To shake hands with him was amazing. I think Dr. King is the greatest man I've ever spoken to on this Earth."

By the time of his 1968 visit, efforts to ban segregation laws were no longer the main focus as they had been in Dr. King's first formal visit to Augusta on April 2, 1962, at Tabernacle Baptist Church.

At that time, Dr. King was on the cusp of taking the reins of leadership to challenge Jim Crow laws that, among other injustices, kept blacks drinking out of separate water fountains and barred them from lunch counters.

At Tabernacle, he spoke to a crowd of more than 3,000, 150 of whom peacefully integrated downtown restaurants days after the 1962 speech.

He told the crowd of his plans to ask President Kennedy to issue an executive order declaring that all segregated public facilities were unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, The Chronicle reported then.

"It's not too much to ask of the president to free Negroes from bondage of segregation and discrimination," Dr. King said in 1962.

Holiday closings

Schools, government offices and most banks will be closed Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, a state and federal holiday:

Federal and state offices will be closed, as well as most city and county government offices.

Aiken City Hall will be open.

Augusta Public Transit will not offer bus service. Regular bus service will resume Tuesday.

Other closings include public schools in Aiken, Columbia and Richmond counties, Medical College of Georgia, Paine College and Augusta State University.

Libraries in Columbia, Richmond and Aiken counties will be open Monday.

King events

The Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday was Thursday, but the holiday commemorating the slain civil rights leader's birth is being observed Monday.

Here's a list of some local events:

M.L. King Jr. Memorial, at noon today at the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, 1351 10th St., with Dr. Herbert Daughtry.

Black History Workshop, presented by The Augusta Chronicle, from 10 a.m. to noon Monday in the Morris Auditorium, News Building at 725 Broad St. Speakers will be Christine Betts, curator of the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, and Rosalind Cool, a ventriloquist and puppeteer. Registration is $6.50 and may be mailed to The Augusta Chronicle, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA 30903, Attention: Heather Young. For more information, call 823-3622.

The NAACP's 24th annual Freedom Fund Banquet, at 7 p.m. Monday in Pullman Hall. Dr. James Carter III will speak on "And Still We Rise." A raffle will be held at 9:30 p.m.

Dr. Martin Luther King annual service, at 11 a.m. Monday, at Broadway Baptist Church, 2323 Barton Chapel Road. Keynote speaker will be the Rev. Otis Moss.

First Annual Unity Breakfast, sponsored by the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, at 7:30 a.m. Monday at Sheraton Hotel Augusta, Wheeler Road. Keynote speaker will be Judge John H. Ruffin. For information, call 796-3117 or 793-6638

Annual King parade, at 1 p.m. Monday, beginning at Laney-Walker Boulevard at Lucy Laney High School.

A Call for Love, Unity and Service, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 2, at Whole Life Ministries, Washington Road. For information, call 724-6172, 826-1961 or 821-7803