A civil rights activist in Silver Spring, Willie Pearl Mackey King, serves as a living piece of history who helped compile Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Credit: Photos provided by Willie Pearl Mackey King

While jailed in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used pieces of toilet paper, newspaper edges, sandwich bags, napkins and whatever he could find to write on. The scraps become his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” explaining the value of his well-known non-violent approach in his fight for civil rights. 

There were a team of people who worked to ensure his message made it beyond the bars, including Willie Pearl Mackey King (no relation to the Civil Rights leader). She worked tirelessly along with Dr. King’s chief of staff, Wyatt Tee Walker, to transform the scraps into the letter people know today, she said.

“The two nights and three days that I spent with Dr. Walker transcribing that Birmingham Jail letter… he did not allow me to go back to the motel room during that period, I had to stay in that office,” she said. “He assisted me trying to put together what looks like a jigsaw puzzle.”

King, a Georgia native who now lives in Silver Spring, was honored by the Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C., at a gala at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library on March 31 where she received a Women Making History award.

Jennifer Herrera, the museum’s vice president of external affairs said King was awarded because her story and impact was so moving.

“[King] recorded her story with us as part of our oral histories resource section on our website and it was such a compelling story,” Herrera said. “We have looked at a lot of women in the Civil Rights Movement and her story really exemplifies that of someone who played a critical role but whose name is not generally known. We know that women have always been at the forefront of social change but don’t always get the credit they deserve.”

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King lived through a time where Black people had to use separate water fountains, couldn’t try on shoes at stores and had to go around the side of the café to get an ice cream cone. She attributed getting the opportunity of working alongside Dr. King purely to divine intervention.

After she graduated high school, King said her mother told her that she couldn’t afford to send her to college. So, King picked cotton in fields and saved money before moving to Atlanta to look for other opportunities. She worked a few jobs while living in the house of a woman who rented out her extra bedrooms to college students and working women.

A fellow renter noticed King was looking for work and mentioned her employer, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was in search of a secretary who could type and take shorthand. King was hired and eventually had a memorable encounter.

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“One day, this gentleman that I had been reading about by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. came into the office from the rear, and he greeted me and welcomed me,” she said. “Then I looked at him and I went ‘oh my gosh, this is the man I’ve been reading about.’”

King went beyond her secretary duties helping with everything from putting water on the table, getting coffee and lunches, and attending meetings. After noticing her hard work and dedication, Dr. King, then only around 33 years-old himself, asked her if she wanted to travel with him. She agreed and later became his private secretary. King said her tours with Dr. King in Alabama in 1962 truly left a mark on her.

“Dr. King would go to the churches and have all the singing and praying and people getting involved and making commitments to participate in the movement, the marches, the sit-ins and what have you,” she said.

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The Civil Rights Movement involved a lot of danger on their lives to Black activists, especially to leaders like Dr. King and those close to him. There were multiple times that King said she felt unsafe while travelling with Dr. King due to the threats against him.

“There were many, many nights when I went to bed as, a very young woman, thinking that I probably would not wake up the next morning. [That we would] be killed,” she said. “On that people-to-people tour, when we got to Gaston, Alabama, there was some credible threats on Dr. King’s life so the FBI and the local authorities said, ‘you need to cancel, King, because we cannot protect you against the violence because these are credible threats.’”

According to King, Dr. King offered the people who travelled with him an opportunity to turn back due to the dangers faced ahead but even with tears in her eye, King decided to stay.

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It was from not only seeing Dr. King’s influence on others that really inspired King to stay with the movement despite the threats but also the realization of her desire to fight for her rights.

“I guess what was most compelling to me was seeing how [people from the people-to-people tour] would make commitments and stick to them and was really serious about getting their rights,” she said. “So, I got caught up in that and realized that I had rights also and that I was willing to put my life on the line to make sure that we realize the rights that we were entitled to, in fact, we called it our God given rights.”

King traveled and work alongside him until 1966 before she went on to work for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for 32 years, where she served as an accounting officer and financial manager. After retiring from that position, she worked as a contractor for the US Office of Compliance on Capitol Hill for six years.

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Looking back on that time period and comparing it to the state of the country now, King said she’s seen how far the nation has come, but it terrified of its apparent downturn.

“I think there’s an appreciation deep within us, of where we have come from knowing that we have come from a mighty, mighty long way, especially with things like having a Black president of the United States and now a vice president and the number of minorities that are on the Supreme Court, in the Congress and that kind of thing,” she said. “Certainly, we’re pleased with that but when you see a lot of other things that are happening, I’m not sure how far we’ll go with what’s happening. Like the state of Mississippi reintroducing Jim Crow and what’s happening in our schools in terms of not being able to teach Black history and things like that seems to be steps backward.”

King moved to Montgomery County in 1971 after marrying her husband, who is a native Washingtonian.

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On a local scale, King said although Montgomery County is nowhere near as bad as the rest of the country, there is still has much to accomplish to attain equality.

“Housing is one of the areas is where I do not see gains that should have been made,” she said. “On the surface, Montgomery County appears to be doing some of the right things for the right reasons, but Montgomery County also has a long way to go in terms of equal opportunities for women and minorities. We could do a lot better.”

In addition to being honored by the Women’s History Museum, King has also been recognized by Montgomery County twice with the African American Living Legend Award and a Hall of Fame award from the county’s office of Human Rights, and by the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies in recent years.

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King said it wasn’t until being commended by the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights that she realized the importance of people like her who can recall and educate others with their first-hand experiences of the Civil Rights Movement.

“There are not that many people still around that witnessed this kind of thing and that it’s a privilege to be able to tell people firsthand the truth of what actually took place, and we can substantiate the truth,” she said. “It’s an honor, it’s a privilege, it’s a blessing.”

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