Community honors civil rights leader with street renaming


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Drive

By David Meade

Approximately 30 people attended a dedication ceremony held Saturday in Williamston for the designation of a portion of North Hamilton Street as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Drive. The program, held in the Palmetto High School auditorium, was as much about recognizing the African American community in Williamston as it was about honoring Dr. King and the civil rights struggle that he led.

Williamston Town Councilman Tony Hagood worked with members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Drive Committee for more than a year to find an appropriate street and get the designation through the state legislative process. Senator Billy O’Dell and House District 9 Representative Anne Thayer helped get it approved.

Hagood was clearly excited to finally have the project finished and to have a ceremony honoring the civil rights leader being held in Williamston.

Hagood said he was a small child when Dr. King died and “never had the opportunity to express my excitement and appreciation to him.”

Invocation for the ceremony was given by pastor Darrin K. Johnson Sr., pastor of new Prospect Missionary Baptist Church. Johnson offered a prayer for community leaders.

Mrs. Joyce Shepard was joined by members of the audience in signing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, ofter referred to as “The Negro National Anthem.”

Members of the MLK committee were introduced. Committee members include Ted Mattison, Steve Ellison, Walter Smith Sr., Mike Looper and Councilman Hagood.

Speaker Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Pastor Spurgeon A. Mattison said that over 900 streets and roads across the country have been renamed to honor Dr. King.

He said he was glad to finally see the effort which was begun by the former pastor of his church, Dr. Norman Pearson, become a reality.

He said the area of north Hamilton Street, Greenville Drive and Church Street was a hub of African American owned business community that in his words was once known as “colored town.”

Mattison said that Caroline School, which is in the triangle, served as an elementary, middle and high school for African Americans. The area included three churches.

He named a number of businesses, all African American owned, that operated in the area.

He said that renaming the street honored those entrepreneurs as well as represented the historical significance for African Americans and their civic pride. He also said it reminds all citizens of the struggle of the civil rights leader.

At that point the new street sign was unveiled by members of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Drive committee.

Following the unveiling, Mayor Mack Durham spoke.

He said that it was an honor and meant a tremendous amount for the community “to be focused on our future with clear eyes open to the past and the beginning of a process.”

“There is still work to be done in Williamston,” he said.

Mayor Durham said he is working through positive ideas and issues, “to put the negative behind us.”

Durham said one of the most important things he wanted to do as mayor “was to embrace the entire community” and said that “Bringing the community together was as much a ministry as a position.”

Speaker Dr. Harold Mackey stated, “August 2nd is a great day for the town of Williamston.”

Mackey quoted presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

He related a story in which as a young man he saw first hand the struggle Dr. King went through. Dr. Mackey said he was at a book signing in Harlem, New York in 1958 and where there were long lines of people to meet Dr. King and get a copy of his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom.”

The book describes the conditions of African Americans living in Alabama during the era and chronicles the events and partipant’s planning of a bus boycott and its aftermath.

Dr. Mackey said he was going to get six copies and have Dr. King autograph them. As he was approaching Dr. King in the line, a lady in front of him asked King if he was Dr. King. When King replied yes, Mackey said the lady stabbed him.

The lady was an African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry, who attempted to assassinate the civil rights leader, stabbing with a letter opener.

Dr. Mackey said Dr. King later stated that the tip of the blade was on the edge of his aorta and if it had punctured it, there was a strong possibility of drowning in his own blood.

“If I had sneezed, I would have died,” he quoted Dr. King as later saying.

Dr. Mackey said Dr. King later received a letter from a small white child which stated she was “so happy you didn’t sneeze.”

Dr. Mackey talked about sit-ins and other incidents that occurred during the civil rights movement of the late 50s and early 60s throughout the south.

He thanked the leadership of the town and the committee for their efforts in making the street renaming possible.

“So many things happened in my life time, too embarassing to talk about here,” Mackey said. “But if some of you young people want to come by my house, I will tell you.”

Williamston Police Chief Tony Taylor said he worked as a dispatcher with the Williamston police department in 1981-82 as he was pursuing a criminal justice degree. Dr. Mackey was a councilman at the time.

Taylor said in 2009, “The Lord dropped in my heart to come back to Williamston to serve this community.”

He said he was disappointed when he applied for the position of police chief, but didn’t get the job.

“When God gives you a vision, a dream, a delay does not mean deny,” he said. “When God gives you a dream, those things will come to pass.”

Taylor said he felt called at the time, to come to Williamston and the opportunity came when the newly elected mayor of Williamston offered him the job as Chief of Police.

While being sworn in as the town’s police chief, Taylor said there was no fan fare and while administering the oath of office, the mayor paused and stated, “You are the first African American to be chief of police in Williamston and the first in Anderson County to head a law enforcement department.”

“I salute the mayor for being progressive,” Chief Taylor said. “Dr. King”s dream is still not over. You can replace the mayor but you cannot take the dream.”

Taylor said he was disappointed that he didn’t see a pure representation of the community at the dedication ceremony.

Rev. Aaron Ochart, pastor of Williamston Presbyterian and Pelzer Presbyterian churches offered the closing prayer.

There are now signs up designating North Hamilton Street from Greenville Drive to past Palmetto High School as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Drive.