Three stories for Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Including the birth of a dream, the fight for a round of golf, and a story of perseverance, brisket, and jazz.
Martin Luther King, Jr. made a lot of visits to North Carolina. He spoke in Chapel Hill in May 1960. He delivered an address in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University on October 11, 1962—the first speech on campus by a Black man since the university officially integrated. He spoke at Bennett College and North Carolina Central University. He made stops in Charlotte and Raleigh. But it was his speech in a high school auditorium in Rocky Mount in November 1962 that, in hindsight, might have been his most important stop. It was there that he made the first recorded utterance of “I have a dream,” the phrase that’s rises to the top for a man known for soaring oratory and powerful prose.
I covered the rediscovery of the tape a few years back. As part of it, I attended a re-enactment of the speech in the same auditorium where the audiotape of King’s address was played, and his words rang out for the first time in 56 years. I talked to a lot of people there, including Herbert Tillman.
Tillman was 17 when he listened to King in Rocky Mount, and the “I have a dream” part didn’t particularly stand out to him—it was a big moment in speech full of memorable turns of phrase. It wasn’t until nine months later, during King’s speech at the March on Washington, that Tillman started to realize the import of MLK’s words in Rocky Mount. You know, he thought, I believe we heard some of that.
I wrote a story for Our State magazine and made the Rocky Mount speech the focus of an episode of my Away Message podcast. If you’re interested in the details of how a speech could be memory holed for so long, I’d encourage you to read or listen to either version (I’m partial to the audio since, as Dr. Jason Miller told me, the difference between text and sound is akin to “the difference between the box score and the game.”). But here’s one piece of perspective that I didn’t make explicit: Before the re-enactment, I met Tillman at his house in Rocky Mount, and asked what the speech had meant to him. After about a half-hour, Tillman stopped for a moment. I hadn’t asked a question, but he had a story to tell me, unprompted, that had weighed on him. He’d been working a low level job at Burlington Mills in Rocky Mount. He was one of the few Black men there, but he was so good at his job that his bosses would send white coworkers to him to learn. One of them ended up becoming Herbert’s supervisor. Herbert wasn’t happy about it, so he complained, and eventually ended up in the office of an executive at Burlington. From there, he explained:
Tillman: I talked to him and I asked him: “If I'm smart enough and good enough to teach the white men how to be supervisors, why am I not qualified to be a supervisor?” And his answer—and I've never forgot it—was “Well Tillman, I'll be honest with you, as much as I wouldn't mind doing it, the city of Rocky Mount is just not ready for it yet. If I were to make you a supervisor, it would probably cause a riot right here in Rocky Mount.” And I told him “Well, I don't think I can stay here.” And he told me: “Well, I’ll put it this way: If you stay, you will be allowed to come to my office anytime that you wish. And anytime time you see any indiscretion, or anything that's not right, you can come to me personally and tell me. You can just leave whatever you're doing and come straight to my office and I’ll take care of it.” And I said no. That's not what I'm looking for. That's basically just asking me to be a stoolie. I said “All I want is equal opportunity.” And he said, "Well Herbert, I tell you this: If there is a supervisor out there that’s rubbing you wrong, I'll fire the supervisor tomorrow if you stay.” I said no, it's not about that. That's not that's not the problem. And he said “Well you know if you do decide to stay I want you to know that until three years from now it won't be too far down the road. We will hire a Black supervisor, and you will you will be in position to at least be in a position to you know to be considered for that job.”
Jeremy Markovich: So it sounded like he wanted to give you everything except for the thing that you were asking for.
Tillman: And I remember him saying, "If I give you that job, that would cause a race riot” and I basically told him “Well let's have the riot,” you know? That didn't scare me. Don't hold me back for something that I'm not guilty of.
Tillman went on to get another job at Abbott Laboratories, where the man who hired him said his race would have no bearing on how far he could be promoted. He stayed there until his retirement.
King’s speech was about something bigger than Herbert Tillman, but it gave him something else: The confidence to stick up for himself. “It inspired me,” Tillman told me. “If one man can make that big a difference, all I have to do is just do what I think is right.”
Dr. King may be the most celebrated civil rights leader, but nearly every city of some size across the south has someone who fought for the rights of Black citizens on a local level. In Greensboro, that man was Dr. George Simkins, a dentist whose entry into civil rights largely began when he and five others were arrested in 1955 for golfing while Black at a whites-only golf course:
The man working the counter snatched the sign-in book before they could touch it. “You can’t play here,” he told them. Calmly, the men put their greens fees on the counter — 75 cents each — and walked outside to tee off.
The irate pro caught up with them a few holes later. Simkins told him: “We’re out here for a cause.”
“What damn cause?” the man asked.
“The cause of democracy.”
I also turned Simkins’s story into an article for Our State and an episode of Away Message, but I learned something recently that I’d missed something during my original reporting. In December 1954, a year before he was arrested after playing golf at Gillespie Golf Course in Greensboro, Simkins and several other Black men attempted to play the segregated Blair Park golf course in High Point. The men did the same thing: They put money down in the counter and went out to play over the objections of the white golf pro. In High Point, the city initially said that the original deed on the land declared that any use of it was reserved for whites only. But a little more than a year later, in February 1956, the city council changed its mind and integrated the course.
Simkins’s fight at Gillespie Golf Course did not have a swift resolution. It took seven years before that course was integrated. In the intervening time, Simkins’s took his golf course integration course to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. The course’s clubhouse mysteriously burned down. The city scraped the topsoil off of the front nine, and built a service garage on it. It shut down all of its recreational facilities instead of integrating them. To reopen the course, Simkins had to registered thousands of Black people in Greensboro to vote, then encouraged them to vote for a slate of city councilmen who would reopen the course, the tennis course, and the public pools. They got their way, the new council changed its mind, and Simkins was the first to tee off at the re-opened Gillespie Golf Course in 1962, seven years to the day after his arrest.
Simkins died in 2001, so I relied on recordings and transcripts from past interviews to make the stories. I didn’t use this bit, but it’s telling about why Greensboro made Simkins into the civil rights leader he became:
And, of course, Greensboro is a very strange city in that you have to fight for everything that you get here. I mean, they don't give one inch. And you have to picket, demonstrate, take them to the courts, or this type of thing, to get anything done.
Other cities right around Greensboro, they were opening up more of their recreational facilities. They were opening up their golf courses to people of color, the swimming pools, whereas Greensboro was closing down everything. I'm talking about cities like Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, even High Point over there, you could go over there and play. And this was the type of thing back there that we were having. And we just have had to -- to do the best we could. And they would knock us down, and we'd get back up and continue to fight.
This might not seem like much of a civil rights story per se, but it still feels like a small marker of progress. In 2008, Ed Wiley III and his wife Yalen opened the Prime Smokehouse in Garner, where they tried to mix their love of brisket and Ethiopian spices and infuse it with the soul of the jazz music that Ed’s father played as a traveling musician in the 1960s. City leaders in Rocky Mount saw Ed’s success in Garner, and asked him if they could help him to relocate to their city. Wiley thought it was a good idea, even if some of the locals in Rocky Mount initially had skepticism. Wiley said he was told that white people wouldn’t cross over to the traditionally Black, Edgecombe County side of the train tracks to eat at his new restaurant. Black folks told him his idea wouldn’t work. But the Wileys opened the restaurant anyway. They just wanted it to be accessible to all people.
Ten years later, they’re still in business.
Initially, Wiley wanted jazz to be a major part of the Prime Smokehouse—after all, Rocky Mount is the birthplace of Thelonious Monk. But weekly shows turned into monthly shows, which then went on to hiatus. Wiley was a little sad about it, he told me back then, but that’s just business.
Since I reported this story in 2016, the jazz has returned. In October, the restaurant held its Fall Jazz Classic, and brought two nights of live music back. The restaurant has since moved from its small space on Thomas Street out to the larger, newer Rocky Mount Mills (the original spot is now home to a Jamaican restaurant). The Prime Smokehouse evolved, but the Wileys never lost sight of its roots.
There are so many stories to be told of intentional, peaceful and thoughtful actions by those who stood against the concept of one color or heritage being less than another’s by birthright. My father taught me such principles by living without fear and embracing all equally as children of God. I was a teenager when we moved back from Africa to rural Va in 1967. Dad had many job offers, but accepted one at less pay with more responsibilities. I knew he wanted us to be a bit closer to extended family. As a senior in high school I suddenly realized why they chose what I thought was Hicksville. The clincher was we were in one of 2 school systems in Va. that was integrated by choice and not court orders. I never once saw a segregation sign in stores or restaurants in our area. They just thought the added cost of busing black kids only to other schools hurt education for all. The area is 90% white and that school board put the savings into a new school buildings plan. Those same new high schools built in the 60s are still the only high schools in the county. That correctly thought out planning positively benefitted several generations. My kids and a few of my grandkids have walked those same halls, played sports on the same fields and gyms. Friends made in school were then those parents we shared the seats with encouraging our kids in sport. Now I see my kids cheering on the grands with so many of their friends made while in school. This is surely the dream Mr. King spoke of being lived out. Actions mold character and I am proud that my folks lived their lives to mold my heart in positive ways. As an adult my work travels often put me in contact with racism and we have had the KKK harass our family. My parents instilled the courage, candor and character to live life in hope. We are all certainly in a better place today and history shows us we need never go back to the not so good ole days. Let us not live in fear of history but rather embrace the truth of positive changes and celebrate each culture with the joys each bring.