Rev. Charles Becknell of Rio Rancho said he wanted to know more about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a man, and he did just that Monday afternoon during an hour-long radio program sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of New Mexico.
KUNM-FM in Albuquerque hosted the program. After opening with the playing of King’s famous “Free at Last” speech, Becknell brought on two of the late King’s comrades in many of his outings throughout the South in the 1960s.
The two men, Bernard LaFayette Jr., chairman of the national board of SCLC and a “Freedom Rider,” and Bishop Calvin Woods, a friend of King and the vice chairman of the national board of SCLC, told Becknell and co-host Cecelia Webb in separate segments that King loved the song “Precious Lord.”
“The night (civil rights activist) Medgar Evers was killed (June 12, 1963), Dr. LaFayette’s name was on the list of people to be killed,” Becknell said. “(Today), he conducts non-violent training throughout the world.”
Fighting for civil rights
LaFayette told of some of his harrowing experiences more than a half-century ago.
“I was with (civil rights activist and former Georgia politician) John Lewis … and after we de-segregated the lunch counters in Nashville, we de-segregated the movie theaters,” he recalled, “and then the Greyhound bus station lunch counters … (Nashville) was completely desegregated in 1960.”
With that success under their belts, the two boarded a bus, he said, and sat up front, in 1961.
“We were convinced that we would be able to make that change, because we had already applied that change, with non-violence — we were convinced that we could make a difference,” LaFayette said.
He recalled King recruiting him to come to Atlanta, despite his young age — early 20s.
“He appointed me as a national program administrator. That meant I would supervise his program staff; then I became coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign,” LaFayette said. “(King) had been observing me and I didn’t know it.”
King ‘the man’
Asked by Becknell to describe King “the man,” LaFayette said, “(King) had different kinds of talents; it wasn’t just one. One talent he had was telling jokes; he was able to keep us in stitches. He never did that when he was making speeches.
“He would entertain us on the road,” LaFayette continued. “He also was a pool shark; he’d get on that pool table and clean it up. (And) he loved music. The day before he was assassinated, he had a mass meeting (at Mason Temple Church in Memphis). It rained a lot, and Dr. King decided not to go.
“He got a phone call from (Ralph) Abernathy, who said, ‘No, you’ve got to come; people are waiting in the rain. They’re not going to be satisfied till you come. … (King) was in his PJs at the time, so he got up and he went — and made his final speech.”
King was killed by a sniper’s bullet the next evening — April 4, 1968 — at the Lorraine Motel.
What would King say today? Becknell queried.
“We’d have a different country altogether” if King, Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X were still alive, he replied. “He wanted to help people reconcile their differences.
“Violence is a thing that will destroy all of us; the victims of violence are also the perpetrators,” LaFayette told Becknell. “The most important thing to remember about Martin Luther King is that he had courage — it takes courage to stand up against an unjust and evil system. I’m proud of what our Congress is doing, because fear will not change things.”
Woods was lucky to be alive after what he experienced in the Deep South in the turbulent ’60s.
An assistant to King, he said, “I traveled with him throughout the South. I was here in Birmingham (Ala.) long before 1963. That’s the time when we invited Dr. King to come to Birmingham to assist us in our fight against injustice — Birmingham was said to be the worst city in the United States of America.
“Now we have a Civil Rights Institute — to regain justice and equality.”
Woods said, “I was shot at four times, beaten by the police two times, and there were times when we were told not to march. … Police were shooting at us like rabbits.
“There were times when we were afraid, but we continued to move on,” Woods said, adding that an old wound in his shoulder still bothers him.
“Dr. King picked me to be his assistant because I didn’t agree with everything. Dr. King took note of that and pulled me in.
“He was certainly a very sincere person who was a spiritual man; a man who believed in prayer,” Woods continued. “The Civil Rights Act — the Public Accommodations Bill — came out of Birmingham and the march in Selma.”
During the battle for civil rights, Woods said, he witnessed many “hard men built for hard times,” including White people.
“God prepared them for what they did,” he said. “… (King) broke down barriers, put lights on where they’d been put out and brought us to great victory.
“Whether we are up on the mountain or not, we’re much higher than we were,” Woods said. “I still have faith, in spite of what’s going on.”