Willie Pearl Mackey King is a name buried in civil rights summaries, and lost in the quick read. When
I sat down with her for a history lesson, pearls of wisdom emerged, and I left testing my own heart to see whether it is genuine.
Willie Pearl worked for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in 1963. At that moment in history, as a 22-year-old secretary, she received the task of a lifetime: the after-hours transcription of the leader’s public statement. King had been jailed for public protests in Birmingham on April 12, 1963. His eight long days of confinement, with its long hours of isolation, thought, and prayer, yielded the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote the piece to respond to eight Birmingham, Alabama clergy who published their charge that King was an agitator, impatient with racial progress, and imprudent in his call for civil disobedience rather than law and order. The time was now, however, King responded, and just like the three Hebrew boys, one doesn’t obey unjust laws.
With her exacting supervisor, Wyatt Tee Walker standing over her shoulder and making her nervous, Willie Pearl sat at the typewriter straining to decipher King’s handwritten notes. Some were written along the margins of newspapers, and on paper towels, and they were smuggled out through King’s lawyers. Her devotion to the genteel leader, 12 years her senior, is evident these 50 years later. Her eyes fill with tears at the mention of detractors who blame her for discarding the historical scraps as she went. “That was protocol,” she says, remembering the dangerous times in which they operated, and their fears-long-confirmed now that government informants walked among them. Besides, King appreciated her work. He gave her a raise in the middle of the year, in recognition of her commitment to the cause and her willingness to roll.
Willie Pearl Mackey King, no relation to Martin Luther King, Jr., (she married a man named Tom King), learned in those early days to work at whatever task presented itself. That is how she started at the office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Birmingham, Memphis, and later Washington, D.C. She took extra classes, learned accounting, accepted reassignments until she retired; she was the finance director of the entire agency, second in command only to the director, (one of whom happened to be the now Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas).
So, Willie Pearl, the now-retired and shrewd executive, recalls the lessons of the inner heart, the pearls of wisdom that span time and place.
“Willie Pearl,” King once said, “the more I talk to you about nonviolence, the more violent you become.” The thought of sitting at a lunch counter while White patrons squeezed ketchup and mustard in her hair was enough to send her back home to Georgia. But when she waited to be served in the diner downstairs from the Birmingham SCLC office, flanked by Walker and Bernard Lee, she came face to face with the concept. An angry, burly White man punched her squarely on the jaw—twice.
… I wish I could comprehend the love that Dr. King showed for doing God’s will.
“The word is ‘excuse me,’” Walker said to the attacker, almost politely. In that moment Willie Pearl recalled that when King was angrily attacked during a speech by an angry White man, he relaxed. You fight that hatred with love. The attacker needed to feel you not resisting. She would not fight back either.
On another morning Willie Pearl packed into a station wagon with civil rights giants including King, Ralph Abernathy, Walker, Dorothy Cotton, Andrew Young, and Lee for a quick appearance in Montgomery. The FBI had warned that it could not protect the group, and King said he would understand if anyone chose not to go. After they circled in prayer, they all got in the car. As they drove along the highway, pickup trucks emerged from the woods on either side of the road and flanked the car. Another truck followed closely behind, loaded gun racks visible. With the truck in front of them hemming them in, tears of fear, then embarrassment, dropped from Willie Pearl’s eyes. She wished Pastor Abernathy would just pray. Instead, King joked calmly, and the group sang freedom songs in the hearing of their would-be attackers. These people are crazy, Willie Pearl thought.
On another summer day SCLC sponsored Family Day at the local YMCA. King, just as other mothers and fathers, hung around the edge of the pool with his legs in the water, watching his children swim and play. Bright sunshine reflected on his face while dark thoughts bounced around his mind. He had beautiful children whom he loved, he told Willie Pearl. “But, I won’t be here to see them grow up,” he foreshadowed with no hint of regret.
“Of course Dr. King was not perfect; however, it is difficult for me to identify his shortcomings,” said Willie Pearl. “I have heard some things, but never did I see the things that I heard about. I wish I could comprehend the love that Dr. King showed for doing God’s will.”
Gut check? No, that’s a heart check for we who wince at minor inconveniences, reflexively attack other opinions, lust on sight, feed our cravings, judge on contact. What does it take to transform human impulses as natural as self-preservation into calm and yielding love? I do not know, but I know it is possible.
“Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love,
At the impulse of Thy love.”