Life and Religion
|MLK’s canceled April 4, 1968 trip to NC changed civil rights and politics|
|Was scheduled to be in Durham instead of Memphis|
|Published Saturday, January 16, 2021 6:15 pm|
|PHOTO | NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY|
|Former U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton (center) was a civil rights activist who extended an invitation to Martin Luther King Jr. to attend a rally in Durham on April 4, 1968. King bowed out to lead a march on behalf of Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.|
He was invited by Dr. Reginald Hawkins, a Charlotte dentist and the first Black man to run for governor of North Carolina, and Eva Clayton, a young mother and activist living in Warren County.
Clayton had volunteered to run for Congress that year and was thrilled about King’s arrival and participation. A fellow Georgia native, she knew that this moment would be life-altering for Black North Carolinians.
“Dr. King had promised to come, and we knew that his coming would inspire more people to be engaged in voter registration,” said Clayton, who was 33 years old at the time.
Instead, King was pulled to Memphis, Tennessee due to a violent strike involving sanitation workers and cancelled his trip to the Tar Heel state. The excitement of his visit was soon replaced with mourning after the young leader and pastor was assassinated. Violence erupted in cities around the state, including Durham where 13 fires were set.
Clayton said that if King had come to North Carolina as planned, he would have made a “huge difference” for Black people. Still, she believes he did. More Black North Carolinians soon became more politically engaged than they had been before.
“The very fact that he wanted to come, didn’t come and his death occurred, I can tell you, there was a tremendous response,” said Clayton, a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University. “His life, even his death caused registration to go up much more than I could have ever done.”
In North Carolina during the civil rights movement, there were countless demonstrations, rallies and marches in the fight for voting rights and racial equality. The need for change was bursting and young people like Clayton knew that political representation was a solution.
After passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there was an immense push for Black people to not only register to vote but to also run as candidates during the 1968 election cycle. Clayton was one of the few Black North Carolinians to run that year and though she lost, the campaign’s energy was an inspiration to continue as a political and civic activist.
In 1992, Clayton and Mel Watt of Charlotte became the first Black North Carolinians elected to Congress since George Henry White in 1901 when the state constitution was amended to disenfranchise Black voters.
Representing the state’s 1st Congressional District for five terms, Clayton fought to ensure eastern North Carolinians and rural residents had stronger economic development, education, agriculture. She also manned efforts to address hunger in the state.
Clayton’s activism in the civil rights movement started when she moved to Warren County with her husband and saw a need to register Black voters there. Once, she picketed her husband’s law office because it contained a segregated restaurant.
Despite all the work she and leaders like King had accomplished, Claytton believes there is still ample work to be done to ensure a safer, fairer democracy.
“Dr. King’s words and his positions and some of the same issues he fought, we continue to fight,” she said. “We shouldn’t be discouraged by that. It just means we have to fight harder.”
On Jan. 5, Georgia elected its first Black senator since Reconstruction, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. He is also the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King’s former church. Less than 24 hours later, insurrectionist Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol parading confederate flags and terrorizing lawmakers.
“I was very, very disheartened,” said Clayton, who watched the news with her grandson. “My reason was, ‘did it have to come to this?’ and his reason was, ‘how dare we come to this?’ It was painful to see people want to overthrow our government.”
Clayton said American democracy is “fragile” and believes there needs to be more accountability for leaders like President Donald Trump and other Republicans who participated in efforts to challenge the outcome of the November election.
“Another of Dr. King’s messages that’s appropriate for what we saw… he put it in this way, ‘we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,’” said Clayton, quoting King from his 1965 speech about Americans who would not stand up against racial discrimination.
“They were complicit when there were obviously troubling signs of this president from Charlottesville to immigrant children in cages. We had to wait until the house is burning down,” said Clayton, who added racism is still a problem despite the progress made since the 1960s and after King’s assassination.
“There’s lingering structural, systematic racism and denial in terms of poverty,” she said. “People are denied in terms of where the live, the education they get, Blacks are still subject to police brutality, the list goes on.”
Still, Clayton is optimistic about the fight for equity and democracy. She credits the work of young people in helping bridge the gap and inspire older generations to “open their eyes” to new perspectives. Young people were cited as a large voting bloc that carried Biden and Harris to the White House this November.
Now 86, the former congresswoman continues to encourage North Carolinians to be involved in their communities and to be inspired by leaders like King, whom she undoubtedly believes has his hand is still involved in the efforts to uplift Black Americans and marginalized communities.
“We must reinforce how important it is register people and educate them. The more we are successful like they were in Georgia, particularly for Black or Jewish people, we have to be honest, there are those people who think they ought to be anti us,” Clayton said. “But we ought to make that as American as anything else. We have to make sure there are no excuses for violence.”
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