When Martin Luther King Jr. came to the University of Virginia in 1963, he was relaxed, friendly and scholarly, said two men who organized his visit to this Southern university in a Southern town that was then mostly segregated.
Paul Gaston, who was a young history professor at the time, and Wesley Harris, one of the first African-American students to attend U.Va., discussed their memories of the civil rights leader at a packed luncheon on Tuesday.
Part of U.Va.'s Martin Luther King Day observances, the panel discussion was moderated by history professor Julian Bond, a veteran civil rights leader. Rick Turner, head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and U.Va.'s former dean of African-American Affairs, gave closing remarks.
About 200 people sat at round tables in the auditorium of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to hear Gaston and Harris. A buffet lunch was provided by U.Va. Dining.
Harris was the second African-American to live on the Lawn and for years now has been a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a U.Va. student, he was a member of the Thomas Jefferson Council on Human Relations in Virginia, eventually serving as chairman. An interracial array of faculty and students, the committee was dedicated to addressing race issues at the University.
Gaston joined the history faculty in 1957, purposefully seeking to teach Southern history at a Southern university to try to rectify the common misconceptions white Southerners held about black people, he said. He served on the board of the NAACP and joined the 1963 sit-ins that led to the end of segregation in Charlottesville's theaters, hotels and restaurants.
On the day King was to speak – March 25, 1963 – Harris and Gaston picked him up at the airport, where he had arrived alone. Minutes later Gaston's wife, Mary, drove up with their two children so they could meet King, who shook their hands. Later, when the family was about to go out to dinner with King, Gaston told his son to wash his hands. His son replied that he wasn't going to wash them, because he had shaken King's hand.
As a serious college student, Harris said he was nervous about how King would present himself and didn't want him to sound like a preacher. He was delighted by King's calm, scholarly manner and impressed with his presence, he said. King gave all evidence of being firmly in control of his mission.
"First, he had thought through what he was doing and was committed to a degree I have not seen again in my lifetime," Harris said. "Second, he gave a sense of love to all."
Harris mentioned how proud he felt as he listened to King discuss topics such as religion, philosophy, economics and history with ease in casual conversations with U.Va. faculty on Grounds.
The audience, which almost filled Old Cabell Hall Auditorium – the event was not well-advertised, Gaston recalled – was receptive and gave King a standing ovation. There were no reporters or TV cameras at the event. Mary Gaston, during the Q-and-A after Tuesday's panel, attributed the lack of coverage to a "conspiracy of silence."
The University administration told Gaston they didn't want any embarrassment or violence and insisted the audience be admitted with tickets. They were distributed free but not easily available, and both men said there weren't that many black people in attendance. Many attendees did stay to meet him after his speech, though, Harris said.
Only a couple of administrators attended the event, Gaston added, and one of them was there to observe that there was no trouble. The other Gaston remembered by name – Marvin Perry, then dean of admission, was genuinely interested, he said.
Bond asked Harris and Gaston, now a history professor emeritus in the College of Arts & Sciences, to tell the story recounted in Gaston's recent book, "Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea," about something that happened when they were walking around Grounds with King. When they heard a loud bang, Harris said he instinctively shielded King, fearing the noise was gunfire. It turned out to be a car's backfire.
King told them he knew he would be killed eventually. "He showed no fear at all, only courage," Harris said.
Gaston pointed out that as a white Southern boy, he could assume the noise was a car, but Harris, as a black Southern boy, could not afford to make that assumption.
In 1963, King had suffered setbacks as well as successes in leading nonviolent civil rights activities, Bond said. After the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law, he became more controversial, especially as he publicized his anti-Vietnam War stance, Bond said. Plus, the FBI had instigated a campaign to discredit King, he said.
By 1968, when King was assassinated, U.Va. was a different place than it had been in 1963, Gaston said.. "The contrast between 1963 and 1968 was profound," he said. "President Shannon organized a memorial service for King with black and white speakers. He quoted King when he asked the U.Va. community if we had the courage to face the challenges ahead."
The last in this year's lineup of January events to commemorate King is scheduled for Thursday night. Amiri Baraka, poet, playwright and activist, will give a reading of his work and answer audience questions starting at 7 p.m. in Culbreth Theater On Feb. 22, Julian Bond and retired magazine reporter and public activist Arlie Schard will give a presentation on "The Civil Rights Movement and the Media" at 5:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Harrison Institute-Small Special Collections Library.