GREENSBORO — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was on his way to Bennett College on Feb. 11, 1958, and the crowd there was growing.
“I couldn’t understand what all the uproar was about,” said Nathan Knight, who was then 10 or 11 and had good reason to pay attention to the group on campus, which was decidedly older and more integrated than the Bennett Belles.
Knight, who lived nearby and sold The Grit and Future Outlook newspapers for spending money, saw gold. Now living in Atlanta and the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter there — an organization King helped found — Knight recalls selling out of everything he had in stock to the waiting crowd. The significance would come later.
That same day Bennett senior Lola Anne McAdoo sneaked into the choir stand of the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel, already packed hours before King was to speak.
Bennett President Willa B. Player, whom history would recall as having a backbone of steel for inviting the then-29-year-old King to speak, had asked students to stay away from the gathering. She was afraid there could be violence, and King was going to meet the next day with her students.
“There were a lot of threats that they didn’t reveal at that particular time,” said McAdoo, a retired elementary school teacher.
A frequent visitor
Before King’s speech at the March on Washington 50 years ago today, the future Nobel Peace Prize winner warmed up with an overflowing audience at the private women’s college.
King was gaining in national prominence that year, having already led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which resulted in the 1956 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that black people must be given equal seating on buses. But there was no cable news or Internet. There was only radio and the evening broadcast news.
“We heard some of his speeches and what he was trying to do,” said retired history teacher Jacqueline Kpeglo, who was 11 at the time and got permission from her parents to go to the gathering with a friend. “We knew about Rosa Parks and what she had done.”
Actually, while the 1958 visit would be his first to Bennett, King was often in Greensboro. He, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who would be the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and others, often gathered around a huge table in civil rights attorney Kenneth Lee’s law library. Lee, then an attorney for the NAACP, represented most of the civil rights demonstrators in Greensboro and other parts of the state.
King and other civil rights icons also often slept in the lower level of Lee’s home, partly because of the inability to find public accommodations.
“We often walked in downtown Greensboro and nobody knew who he was,” said Lee, who was one of the plaintiffs who successfully sued to integrate the law school at UNC-CH.
But on that February day in 1958, the demand was so huge for the 800-seat Pfeiffer Chapel that loudspeakers were set up across the campus for the overflow crowd.
Many people didn’t know how to respond to the brave orator who declared that segregation was wrong and that it was time to break the bondage.
“People were playing it safe; they were afraid of reprisals,’’ Edwin R. Edmonds, a former president of the Greensboro chapter of the NAACP and a Bennett College professor, told the News & Record before his death in 2007.
Many blacks and whites alike wanted to keep the status quo, Edmonds said.
‘I hung on his every word’
The local NAACP chapter sponsored King’s visit, but it almost gave up in frustration as door after door was slammed — including N.C. A&T’s — while the chapter tried to find a place to hold the rally. Then Player said yes.
Edmonds and others met King at an airport in Raleigh, not risking having him fly into Greensboro, Edmonds said. But there were lighter moments. The group even took King by the YWCA, known for actively fighting for equality, Edmonds said.
“He got missing while we were there. That got us worried,’’ Edmonds said. “When we found him, he was in a room shooting pool with some of the kids.’’
By then King had survived the bombing of his Atlanta home and many threats on his life.
Dressed in a suit and tie, King spent a part of the afternoon with Bennett student reporters, who interviewed him for the campus newspaper, and posed for photographs with local activists. Then he delivered his message.
“We had been sitting there for two hours,” recalled Jibreel Khazhan, then-16-year-old Ezell Blair Jr., a Dudley High junior, who listened from a nearby building where speakers had been set up. “I had to go to the bathroom, but I was afraid to leave. I hung on his every word.”
From where she crouched in the choir stand, McAdoo watched the clean-cut man, who was short in stature but whose presence filled the room. He was recounting the moment that gave him the courage he would need to lead a movement, telling the audience he was sitting in the kitchen of his home, his mind full of the injustices, pleading to the Lord for guidance.
“He said he heard, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth and God will be at your side,’ ” McAdoo said. “Here’s this man saying what I had been hearing about all my life from my parents and in Sunday school.”
Urging voter registration
The Greensboro Daily News wrote of King also calling for nonviolent resistance: “Dr. King said the Negro will continue to say to the white man: ‘Do to us what you will and we’ll still love you. Burn our home, take us out at midnight to torture us, take our children and spit in their faces and we will still love you.
“ ‘We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer; and by our compassion and willingness to suffer we will win you in the process.’ ’’
At one point, according to an audio snippet provided by Bennett College, King also called out those black people who did not bother to register to vote.
“Don’t put it all on resistance,” he said. “It’s true that in many areas, in my state of Alabama, Negroes aren’t registered in many instances because they can’t register, because the resistance is strong, because the registrars refuse to register them ... but I don’t think that’s true in Greensboro, N.C.
“Many Negroes aren’t registered because they are too lazy to go down and get registered,” King said to applause.
Amidst the clapping, the shouting and cheers that often greeted King’s remarks, Khazhan, now of Bedford, Mass., was moved to tears.
“He said: ‘Who amongst us will join us,’ ” Khazhan recalled. “I couldn’t see him, but it was like thunder when he spoke. He reached a crescendo. He reached our consciousness.
“I said to myself: ‘I’m going to join you,’ ” Khazhan said.
Two years later, on Feb. 1, 1960, Kazhan and three other A&T students staged a lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro — what King would later describe as giving a second wind to the civil rights movement.
But on that night in 1958, it was King stirring souls.
“I felt that even as a child,” said the then-11-year-old Kpeglo.