Return to Transcripts main page


Freedom's Foot Soldiers

Aired October 15, 2011 - 19:30   ET


T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm T.J. Holmes. The world knows him as a civil rights leader and icon. But six people, who are civil rights legends in their own right, who also knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a friend, agreed to meet us here at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta. And for this exclusive and extraordinary reunion, we met in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist, where many of the civil rights planning sessions took place.

They all have their own unique memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. They were all part of his inner circle, his think tank, his civil rights family. We met with this unique group on the first floor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where many of the movement's planning meetings were held.

XERNONA CLAYTON, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: Oh, it was just soon as I walked in, I was reliving the story thanks to Reverend Jackson. He tells the story every year. I can always tell where he's speaking because he tells the story that right here in this room was Dr. King's last birthday. And somehow when I walked in here this morning I felt that recapitulation of what happened that night.

HOLMES: Xernona Clayton was one of the chief organizers of events for King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And perhaps more importantly, Clayton was one of the most important women in SCLC's inner circle. In 1968 Clayton, the Muskogee, Oklahoma native and close friend to Coretta Scott King, would become the first African-American female to host a primetime talk show. In 1991 she published her autobiography, "I've Been Marching All the Time."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mrs. Xernona Clayton.

HOLMES: And in 1993 Clayton became the co-founder of the Trumpet Awards, which annually offers the achievements of African-Americans.

Also with us was Georgia Congressman John Lewis. Lewis was a teenager when he first met King.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (R), GEORGIA: I wrote him a letter when I was 17. He wrote me back. Sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket. And invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him. And I walked in that church. I was so scared. I didn't know what to say or what to do. And he said, "Oh, you're the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis? And I said, "Dr. King, I'm John Robert Lewis." And that changed my life. HOLMES: Lewis would become the chairman of SNC, the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee, a group known for its sit-ins, bus boycotts and other forms of protests. SNC was an integral part of the civil rights struggle. Lewis born just outside of Troy, Alabama was one of the 13 original freedom riders.

Also meeting with us was the wife of Ralph David Abernathy, Juanita, who was born in Lynden, Alabama. It was her husband Ralph along with Dr. King who organized the famous Montgomery bus boycott. History would label that as the beginning of the American civil rights movement.

JUANITA ABERNATHY, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: Dr. King was a down to earth person. He was not a snob. He could have been an intellectual snob. But he was not. And that in itself says what caliber of man he was. He didn't overlook anyone. The lowest man on the totem pole in terms of his level in society.

HOLMES: One day in 1957, when her husband was away with Dr. King, white supremacists bombed the family's Montgomery, Alabama home. Juanita and her infant daughter survived. Also with us, Reverend Joseph Lowery , a young united Methodist preacher when he met King. Lowery would help co-found the SCLC with Dr. King. The reverend would later become the longest reigning president of SCLC, lasting 20 years. And this Huntsville, Alabama native would go on to give the benediction at the inauguration of the nation's first black president.

(on camera): Do you ever have a moment, any of you ever have a moment where you still just break down and cry over what happened and losing your general, essentially, certainly your good friend? But do you all ever have those moments? And when do those happen?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY, FORMER SCLC PRESIDENT: I'm too tough. Too strong. Too physical.

HOLMES: Is that right?

LOWERY: Too male to cry in front of you. I think we've all cried from time to time. And it's what we're crying about, we have to make sure that it's right.

HOLMES (voice-over): One of the most visible on our panel of the friends of King is Reverend Jesse Jackson, who joined King's movement when he was just 22 years old. Dr. King would name Jackson head of SCLC's famed Operation Bread Basket, set up to pressure white corporations to hire minorities and buy from black businesses. Jackson, who later left the SCLC and formed his own civil rights organization, would become the second African-American to run for president. Shirley Chisholm being the first.

In 1988 Jackson surprised many with nearly seven million votes and several primary victories. Many will remember the image of the Greenville, South Carolina native crying the night Barack Obama won the presidency.

REV. JESSE JACKSON, FOUNDER, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: I don't know where the tears came from. But what hit my mind was it was the joy of that moment. We stood in that same spot 40 years before with tear gas protesting the war in Vietnam.

HOLMES: New Orleans native Andrew Jackson Young was pastor of a church in Marian, Alabama when he joined King's movement. He would eventually become one of the SCLC's chief mediators.

ANDREW JACKSON YOUNG, FORMER UNITED NATIONS AMBASSADOR: I remember specifically going to see the president after the Nobel Prize speech, President Johnson. And he spent over an hour complaining about why he couldn't pass a voting rights bill. And when we left there at night, late at night, dark, walking down the White House lawn, Martin said almost whimsically, "The president doesn't have enough power to pass a voting rights bill. I guess we've got to figure out how to get him some power."

HOLMES: That same year young was named SCLC executive director. Four years later he was with King and Jesse Jackson in Memphis when the civil rights leader was killed. Young would go on to serve three terms in Congress. And in 1977 was picked as President Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the United Nations. The first African-American in that position.

(on camera): Dr. King's friends have no doubt that he would have been proud that the country elected a black president. But they didn't necessarily agree about whether or not Dr. King would be happy with President Obama right now.

LEWIS: If it hadn't been for Martin Luther King Jr., there would be no Barack Obama. And people ask me sometimes whether the election of Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. I said no. No. It's just a down payment.


HOLMES: While many people will admit they could never imagine a day where the U.S. would elect a black president, Dr. King could certainly imagine that day, though he never got to see it happen. My conversation with his friends turned to what Dr. King might think of the job President Obama is doing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Robert Kennedy, when he was attorney general, said that he could imagine the possibility of a negro president of the United States within perhaps 40 years. Do you think this is at all realistic?

MARTIN LUTHER KING, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: I think we may be able to get a negro president in less than 40 years. I would think that this could come in 25 years or less.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOLMES: I know it's only speculation. We'd never know for sure. But I don't know any other group that's better to ask than you all about what Dr. King might have been thinking today, and that is of course he would have been proud of the election of Barack Obama. Would he still have been proud of the way he has governed and of his priorities so far?

ABERNATHY: He would have been meeting with President Obama.

HOLMES: Proud?

ABERNATHY: Oh, yes. He would be proud. But he would be meeting with him and helping to direct the course. In which his administration needs to be going.

HOLMES: Would he have had that influence to direct this president?

ABERNATHY: He would have made it his business to have the influence. And that's the difference.

LEWIS: He would have had the influence because if it hadn't been for Martin Luther King Jr. there would be no Barack Obama.

And people ask me sometimes whether the election of Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. I said no. No. It's just a down payment.

YOUNG But Dr. King's dream on the way to Washington was about redeeming the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war, and poverty. We've made some progress on both racism and war, but we have made no progress, we have gone backwards. The number of people who are poor now are greater than they were, the percentage is greater than they were at the time of Dr. King's death.

CLAYTON: And I don't think if Martin Luther King were here today, I don't think he'd have to find a moment. Wouldn't have to wait for something. I think he would see that the condition in this country, he would have to make a move. He would go to the White House. He would meet the president. He would not be afraid to say - or be concerned with what people would say, if you're black you're protesting against him.

HOLMES: If you start a movement talking about what this black president is doing wrong, then maybe his enemies, his political enemies, will use that against him and go look, see, even black people don't even like this president.

LOWERY: Well, it's not that the black president is wrong. It's that the people around the black president don't see his vision and don't let him lead. We've got to understand that the Congress is more to blame. I blame John more than I do Barack. We've got to get the Congress to straighten up and fly right. We've got to be unafraid to march and to demonstrate and to challenge the conscience of this nation with or without a black president.

YOUNG: We don't have a black president. We have a global president. The president of the United States of America has got to lead the entire globe. And this man is the one most capable of doing that. But he's got to have support and direction. And -

JACKSON: Then if the welfare are subsidized and shielded and the rest are left without the meat base -

YOUNG: But you're -

HOLMES: Well, that's -

JACKSON: It's the fight to be fought. If in fact -

YOUNG: That's not the fight to be fought, Jesse.


YOUNG: Multinational corporations feed more people in the world than anybody else. It's not that we've got to fight them. We've got to lead them.

LEWIS: And you know when Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he spoke about -

We cry for joy. We don't cry for pain. When the cup runs over.

He spoke about the world house. That we all live in the same house. It's one house. Not just the American house but the world house.

HOLMES: Right before his death, Dr. King was considering taking a break from his civil rights work. Some of his closest friends were pleading with him to take that break. Others wouldn't let him.


HOLMES: Constant death threats. Nights in jail. Homes being bombed. That was the life of a civil rights leader. Dr. King's friends say he needed a break. And he wanted to take one.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you fear for your life?

KING: Ultimately, it isn't so important how long you live. The important thing is how well you live.


JACKSON: I remember his convening a meeting early that Saturday morning before Memphis, saying, "I've had a migraine headache for three or four days. I spent time with Juanita, with Andy and Gene, some with Reverend Lowery, and Coretta and I. And I'm in deep hurt. A, I've thought about stopping. Many of my classmates, who were my friends, have now turned on me because of the Vietnam war, and I will not bifurcate my ethic - my sense of global ethics."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KING: The promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam. Making the poor, white and negro, bear the heaviest burden both at the front and at home.


JACKSON: He said I thought about quitting. He said, maybe just go to Morehouse and become president and begin to write books. Then I thought if I stopped the people who never stop would never forgive me, I can't stop. He said then I thought maybe if I would pull back and just begin to write, we've done a lot in 13 years, and we've overcome a lot.

YOUNG: But he had a tempting offer. See, I think as a young man, all us young preachers think that if we can preachers think we could end up in a big church in New York like Riverside Church and teach at Union Seminary, that's like heaven on earth. And Riverside Church had offered him the job as interim pastor.

And some of us, me included, wanted him to take a sabbatical. At that time, it was 38. We said take off until you're 40. We're not going anywhere, we'll be here. Let's take the time to reassess. He said, "No, I can't take off." The truth of it is, none of us wanted the people's campaign.

JACKSON: Retreating out of the press. Think about retreating and (INAUDIBLE) I wrote notes like Jesus said, first let this cup pass from me. Then as he prayed, the disciples slept, then not my will be done. The same three moves that Jesus went through on his way to Calvary, to Memphis.

LEWIS: But Dr. King couldn't turn back. He was answering the trumpet call as (INAUDIBLE). He could not - it was in his DNA not to turn back. He couldn't give up. He couldn't give in.

HOLMES: How many of you all here - you hit on it a little bit. You want him to take a sabbatical. Did everybody in here - were you kind of in agreement that you would have been OK with him taking time off?

It looks like you're shaking your head. No. It sounds like some of you would have been OK with taking the time off.

YOUNG: No, none of our wives wanted us to slow down.

ABERNATHY: He knew if he ever stopped, that would be the end of the movement. That's what the power structure wanted. Once he was out of the way, they felt that they could - then the backbone of the movement would be broken. By the time he came back, it would be so fractured it would take years to get it back together. And he knew that. He discussed that.

HOLMES: Dr. King spent his last birthday here at this historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Up next, the rare video of that birthday celebration that will no doubt surprise you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HOLMES: Think of all of the pictures and all of the videos you've ever seen of Dr. King? In how many of those can you remember him smiling? That's what makes the video you're about to see and the story you're about to hear so special of his last birthday right here.

CLAYTON: As soon as I walked in, I was reliving the story thanks to Reverend Jackson. He tells the story every year. I can tell where you're speaking. He tells the story that right here in this room was Dr. King's last birthday. Somehow when I walked in here this morning, I felt that recapitulation of what happened that night. Andrew Young and Reverend Abernathy called me and we were all very concerned about Dr. King. This was on the heels of his public turning the back on him because of his stand on Vietnam.


KING: I want to make it very clear that I want to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy, and with all of my action to repulse that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.


CLAYTON: And he had been very down in spirit. And so the two of them called me and said, "You know, we are so concerned about doc, that's what we called him affectionately. We haven't seen him smile in a long time. Today is his birthday." And they were all here meeting at the church for some march that is getting ready to take place.

JACKSON: I remember around noontime (INAUDIBLE) coming in with a cake, "Doc, you forgot your own birthday." And we laughed. And then -

HOLMES: Did he really? Forget his own birthday?

JACKSON: We were not having a birthday party. We were praying on the way to Washington.

CLAYTON: Dr. King, I remember seeing this picture now. They were meeting in there. He came through here. Started up this door. And Jesse said to him, "Wait, doc, this is your birthday, so come back."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Dr. King. Happy Birthday to you.


CLAYTON: So I said to him, I present this (INAUDIBLE) today is your birthday. So we've got some remembrances for you. I gave him the gold cup and I said you're always trying to help President Johnson fight the war on poverty. So take this cup and stand on the corner and get some pennies in the cup and help the president. He laughed. He laughed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CLAYTON: Let me read it. It says we're cooperating with Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. Drop coins and bills in the cup.


CLAYTON: Then I said, you're always going to go to jail. So next time, take the shoestring potatoes and you'll have manage to munch on. He laughed. Well I presented several gifts like that he was just full of laughter and then we all joined in and gave him the serious cake that ended up being his last birthday. It turned out because of the film crew being here, that became a very valuable piece of footage.

Because what they said later on when they were putting together a movie on him, they said they had very little footage when he was laughing.

YOUNG: I think it's very important to remember why he got discouraged. Because it wasn't just that he came out against the war, it was about the state of the United States.


KING: The promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefield at Vietnam.


ABERNATHY: The people have decided along with the media that all of Dr. King's information and all of his statements should be relegated only to civil rights. They didn't want him dealing with the ills of all of America around the war. They just wanted him to be confined to civil rights. This is not who he was.

HOLMES: Basement meetings, bombings, a Birmingham jail, to a black president, all the tragedy and triumph in between, and now a memorial on the National Mall. Dr. King's friends want to remind you that it's just one memorial, one monument, to one man. And though he may deserve it, Dr. Lowery reminds us all that it's easier to build monuments than it is movements. It doesn't mean you shouldn't build monuments anyway.

I'm T.J. Holmes. Thank you for joining us for FREEDOM'S FOOT SOLDIERS.