Looking back on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s connections in Charlotte

Dr. King left behind a number of close friendships with Charlotte-area activists.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. befriended and worked with a number of Charlotte-based activists in the 1950s and 60s.
Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 5:56 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - In the much-analyzed life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, his personal relationships are often examined under a very public microscope.

In the 1960s, civil rights luminaries including Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, along with Georgia congressman John Lewis, were part of his trusted inner circle.

The late John Lewis recalls being impressed at an early age.

“He inspired me when I first heard him as a child on an old radio,” Lewis said.

However, well-established relationships linked to local civil rights figures and their cities in far too many instances didn’t get enough attention.

Places like Charlotte’s Park Center where he appeared in the 1950s and 60s.

Factor in recognition of community organizers like the late Kelly Alexander Sr. who received a series of letters from Dr. King.

His son, Kelly Alexander Jr., clings to the memories of their relationship.

“He knew a lot of people who lived here. He knew a lot of folks based here who were involved in the struggle,” Alexander Jr. said.

Well-publicized visits in the Queen City are documented through letters and correspondence now housed inside the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte.

He also shared a connection with Harry Golden, who once published the Carolina Israelite, and is mentioned by name in King’s famous letter from Birmingham Jail.

One final note came to activist Reginald Hawkins.

This telegram announced that his scheduled trip to Charlotte that day would be canceled, as King stayed in Memphis helping the city’s striking sanitation workers.

Hours later on April 4, 1968, gunfire at the Lorraine Motel took his life.

Dawn Schmitz heads up the special collections section at UNC Charlotte.

“To have letters written by Dr. King himself to civil rights leaders in Charlotte,” she said. “It really makes it very tangible of what the civil rights struggle was here in Charlotte.”

One photo in the collection could be viewed as a possible needle in the haystack.

It’s Dr. King speaking in Charlotte at the 1964 York Road High School commencement ceremony.

Among the graduates was J.W. Walton.

“He left the impression that he stood for equality and freedom, and that we would have a better life,” Walton said.

Beyond well-documented moments, and common experiences, cemented a number of lasting friendships.

Case in point, Dr. King’s home in Montgomery absorbed a bomb blast in 1956 and nine years later the Alexander family faced the very same type of racially-charged violence.

Years after the protests, Alexander Jr. said closeness between the two men was fueled by shared moments.

“Fellow travelers along a long road to equality,” was how he described it. “Brothers in the struggle.”

Related: Livingstone College to feed the homeless Friday for MLK service project