Rob Christensen

MLK’s fateful decision to go to Memphis

It is one of those what ifs of history.

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was not even originally supposed to be there.

King had planned to spend the day in North Carolina campaigning for Reginald Hawkins, the first major black candidate for governor in the state.

I was reminded of this by the recent discovery of a recording of a largely forgotten King speech he made in Rocky Mount in 1962 that, in many ways, previewed the famous “I have a dream’’ speech he gave at the March in Washington the following year.

Hawkins was a 44-year old minister, dentist, and civil rights leader from Charlotte. He decided to run for governor after studying the fusionist movement of the 1890s which encouraged him to attempt a coalition of “Negroes, poor people of all races and liberals.” In the 1950’s and 1960’s he was a civil rights activist. He founded the Mecklenburg Organization for Political Affairs (MOPA) and led Charlotte’s black community in pickets and boycotts against numerous segregated institutions.

He took on the Charlotte school system, the state’s white doctors and dentists, the YMCA, segregated hotels and restaurants, election officials, county health departments and even leaders of anti-poverty programs. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided wider protections for blacks to vote and Hawkins used his campaign to draw attention to racial and economic opportunities in the state.

His house was one of four that were bombed on Nov. 22, 1965 in Charlotte, all civil rights leaders. The one aimed at Hawkins’ house hit a tree branch and did not do any damage to his house. Hawkins emerged from his house with a rifle, but his wife dissuaded him from shooting at the getaway car.

Hawkins called himself “the ink in the milk” of the Democratic primary in which he faced the sons of two former governors, Raleigh attorney Mel Broughton and Bob Scott, a Haw River farmer. Scott would go on to win the Democratic primary and defeat Republican Jim Gardner in the general election.

“Not only was Hawkins the first African American to run for governor in the state, his campaign was a public assault on racism, poverty and political elitism,” wrote Terry Evan Faulkenbury in a 2012 study of the race. “Using his gubernatorial bid as a platform for civil rights protest, Hawkins campaigned to win while exposing the blatant discrimination that persisted across the state.’’

He would gain 129,808 votes or 18.5 percent.

Hawkins was one of several black candidates who were running in 1968, in part, to help increase interest in black voter registration. Eva Clayton ran against Democratic Congressman L.H. Fountain, David Stith (father of Thomas Stith, Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff) ran against Congressman Nick Galifanakis. And Henry Frye became the first black elected to the state legislature in this century.

In late March, King announced that he would spend April 4 touring the state campaigning for Hawkins. A caravan was to start in Charlotte with stops in Greensboro, Durham, Rocky Mount and Wilmington. King would likely have put in a good word for other black candidates.

But at the last minute, King canceled the trip to return to Memphis where he was leading a campaign in support of the black striking garbage workers. It was a fateful decision. The day he was to campaign in North Carolina, he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel, at age 39.

In the aftermath, 4,300 National Guardsmen were deployed by Gov. Dan Moore to restore order in Raleigh, Wilmington, Wilson, Greensboro, Durham and Goldsboro.

What if.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@

newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack

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