`Magnetism of the man'

Leader: Baltimoreans recall the civil rights leader's visit to the city in 1964 and his ability to stir crowds wherever he went.

January 21, 2002|By Jonathan Bor and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jonathan Bor and Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

He toured Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Market in the heart of West Baltimore, rode in an open convertible through East Baltimore and preached to a rapt crowd that spilled out of the Masonic Temple onto Eutaw Place.

As his motorcade crawled through the city, people pressed against his car to squeeze his hand and pat his back. Children stumbled over each other to grab a look. A band stationed on North Gay Street belted out a rousing march.

It was Oct. 31, 1964, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had come to Baltimore. His mission was to bring out the vote for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would win in a landslide a few days later, but he also struck broader themes of justice, equality and tolerance.

As the nation today observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day - he was born 73 years ago on Jan. 15, 1929 - those who remember the visit can't help but recall the personal magnetism that attracted and stirred crowds.

When King came to Baltimore, he was the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement and at the zenith of his popularity and influence. He had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two weeks earlier. He had recently met the pope. And in July, the Civil Rights Act passed Congress, barring discrimination by employers, restaurants, hotels and theaters.

"Whenever Martin Luther King came to Baltimore, he engendered a tremendous following," said the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a friend who knew King well enough to call him by his nickname, Mike. "Everyone wanted a piece of him."

But his wasn't the aura of a rock star or politician. King overpowered people with an intelligence that was arresting, said Bascom, retired pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church.

"He matched mind with mind. He took the intellectual end of the stick and really beat us all into shape. ... That was the magnetism of the man."

Early in the day, King addressed ministers at Faith Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

"I have a dream," he said, using the words that had marked the crescendo of his historic speech during the March on Washington in August 1963.

Then, using a phrase that seems eerie only in hindsight, he said: "I haven't been to the promised land, but I've been to the mountaintop.

"There are a few giants there blocking us, but we will get in that promised land and when we do, every rabbi, every preacher will know we're talking about the same God. He's working for all of us. Dark yesterdays will be transformed into bright tomorrows."

King would invoke the "mountaintop" imagery - an allusion to Moses overlooking Canaan - on April 3, 1968, the day before he was shot while in Memphis, Tenn., supporting a sanitation workers' strike.

His speech at the Masonic Temple drew close to 2,000 people. King had a strong connection to Baltimore, a city with a history of segregation, where black churches generously supported the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he led.

Natalie Woodson, who would become principal of a city elementary school, attended the Masonic Temple gathering with her husband, Cornelius Woodson. The couple had also heard him the previous summer in Washington.

Her husband, a lawyer, had felt a close kinship because he and King were members of the national fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.

Woodson vividly recalls how King stirred the crowd with his strong moral theme. "He preached the message that we do have a responsibility to one another. He inspired people to live to the best of their capabilities."

The Rev. Johnny N. Golden Sr., president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, was too young to appreciate the social significance of King's visit. He was 13.

But Golden knew King was coming to town. Everyone knew - from the excited supporters to the people denouncing him as a Communist for his efforts to crush segregation.

"I think all of us, as African-Americans, had some sense of who he was," said Golden, now 50.

"He did not just free black people in America," Golden added. "He freed white people. He helped us all to see that black nationalism and white segregation both were wrong."

The Rev. Kwame Osayaba Abayomi, pastor of Unity United Methodist Church and a city councilman, was a sophomore at Morgan State University when he heard King's moving speech in Washington.

But he missed King's visit to Baltimore in 1964. By then, Abayomi had joined the Air Force.

Instead, in 1968 - while stationed in Georgia - he attended King's funeral, listening to the elegies from loudspeakers outside the Ebenezer Church in Atlanta and to people crying uncontrollably. "We all wanted to know why, and there was no answer," Abayomi said.

King's visit to Baltimore in 1964 was not his last. The next April, he spoke before a meeting of the SCLC, urging an economic boycott of Alabama to protest the state's racial policies. In 1966, he came to Baltimore to endorse plans by the Congress on Racial Equality to make Baltimore a target city for change.

Some who saw King in 1964 say he would be saddened by the Baltimore of today.

"I think he'd be heartbroken about the schools, about the poverty, about the homelessness as well as the housing," said Bascom, 75. Golden said King would shudder to see so many African-American men in jail and so many people failing to live up to their ideals.

"Yes, we've come a long way, but he would say we have a mighty, mighty, mighty long way to go," Golden said.

Natalie Woodson, 73 and retired as principal of Patapsco Elementary School in Cherry Hill, said King's dream is far from fulfilled.

"We will always probably have to work very hard to improve the manner in which we interact with each other as human beings. But I can't think of another person whose life demonstrated that particular quality here in this country."

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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