The Day I Marched with Dr. Martin Luther King through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.*
Rev. Harcourt Klinefelter
I had the privilege of working with Martin Luther King in the last two years of his life. I knew him as my employer, my minister and friend and not only him, but also the rest of his family. As Assistant Director of Public Relations for SCLC my responsibilities included making the recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and sermons and then sending them to the media and making them suitable for radio programs.
In that capacity I accompanied Dr. King on Meredith Mississippi Freedom March in 1966.
This march from Memphis Tennessee to Jackson Mississippi, was constant under the thereat of death.
The most dangerous moment was when we went into Philadelphia Mississippi where, two years earlier, three civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were kidnapped and murdered. There in the lion’s den itself in front on the county courthouse we would hold a prayer service commemorating them.
As we approached the town square I could see on all sides of the streets a sea angry people. We were outnumbered almost 10 to 1.
To my great surprise the whole time Dr. King spoke the mob was silent.
When Rev. Ralph Abernathy began to pray the silence ended. The mob began to scream. As the marchers repeated the words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” the terror began.
A mob of more than one thousand people, carrying weapons ranging from firearms to home made clubs shouted threats of death at the marchers.
Over the screams we could here loud noises that could be shots or very powerful firecrackers called cherry bombs, which could blow you hand off. The great fear was that the noise of the bombs would be used as a cover for gunfire.
The first bomb landed and one girl was burned. As the marchers started to move out cherry bombs were falling left and right.
Then I noticed a Negro man lying on the pavement. Apparently, he had suffered an epileptic seizure. I went to the man and a white woman, a nurse joined me. We felt ourselves being surrounded. The rest of the march moved on because the attention of the crowd was now focused on us. We were now completely surrounded by an angry mob, and no one in the march was in sight, not even any newsmen.
We feared for our lives, and at that point did not see any escape. The sounds of hatred that had engulfed us became louder and louder! “Leave that nigger alone. Can’t you see he’s a slave! Get ‘em. Kill ‘em.”.
All hope was gone. It seemed like only a miracle could save us.
Then I looked up and saw at the back of the crowd a pick-up truck driving through the crowd being driven by two Black policemen. They had been hired for the day to give the town a better image. Like Moses going through the Red Sea the crowd parted.
We placed the stricken man in the truck and we hopped into it.
As soon as we were in the truck trying to keep low, a cherry bomb was thrown in, and lay there, threatening to explode in the face of the unconscious man.
I thought to myself, “It his eyes or my hand.” … Then I used my head and stepped on it. The bomb’ exploded, but most of the force was dissipated in heat under my shoe. It just left me with a very hot foot. The sole of my shoe saved the eyes of our Soul brother.
We rode on and we were eventually reunited with the rest of the marchers. Our ears now heard, in place of screams of hate, a joyful noise being made unto the Lord, in the form of Freedom songs.
When I look back I realize that the words, “Father forgive!” and our action as “Good Samaritans” had made an appeal to the conscience of the mob, bringing out their humanity.
This is the heart of the nonviolence as preached by Rev. King.
Was it Providence made it possible for me to be here to tell this story? I don’t know. But this I do know. I would do the same again, because even if we had been killed, our actions made it possible for Martin Luther King and the rest of the marchers to escape.
*June 24, 1966 Photo Bob Fitch