I first saw Dr. King at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. I was one of over 500,000 who were on the Capital Mall that hot day in Washington, D.C. The atmosphere was charged with feelings of solidarity and optimism. Dr. King took the podium, and after the first sentence of his “I Have a Dream” speech, the entire crowd became silent. We listened and felt we were part of a national movement that would succeed in realizing the dream that all persons in the United States would finally get the right to vote and enjoy the protections of our Constitution.
In Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965, my hometown buddy Chuck Neblett and I were talking on a Selma street, near the Brown Chapel. We were in Selma to help organize the Selma-Montgomery March. He and I were discussing how to put “We Shall Overcome” bumper stickers on all the Selma police cruisers. Then Chuck said, “Do you want to meet Martin?”
Dr. King was coming down some stairs nearby, and said, “Hi, Chuck”. Chuck approached him and said “Martin, this is Charles.” His presence was warm and inviting, and he was introduced as “Martin”, not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He asked me what I had been doing in the civil rights movement. For the next thirty minutes, Martin, Chuck, and I stood in the street, as I recounted our work for the Mississippi Freedom Summer. I told Martin how we organized and ran Freedom Schools and our strategies to register people to vote.
In our conversation, I highlighted our work for the Black farmers of Madison County. Sixty percent of the farmland was owned by Black farmers, but they had no say in farming policies through federal programs because they had no representation on the governing board that decided who received crop allotments and other federal subsidies. I told Martin how we organized meetings in Black churches in rural Madison County. The federal government did not practice racial segregation in the voting process, as did the State of Mississippi. There had never been any Black representative on this board since Reconstruction. When I left the Valley View Project in December of 1964, black farmers had representation on the governing board.
Martin listened to my stories with interest. He kept plying me with questions. He was interested in our strategies, especially what worked and what didn’t. He was very humble and put me completely at ease speaking with him. I was impressed that he wanted to hear from me, a twenty-year-old college student, and was so attentive to the details of our campaign on behalf of the Black farmers. I felt honored I had met and spoken with Martin the person, as well as the national icon of the civil rights movement.
The atmosphere in Selma was far different from my experiences in Mississippi. The Selma police knew they were outnumbered. Chuck and I crawled up to several police cruisers and placed bumper stickers on them proclaiming “We Shall Overcome”. If they saw us, they never said anything.