A photograph now part of collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and various other museums and galleries shows Martin Luther King with his outstretched right arm being grasped by Black women who pressed alongside his open car. The image was captured in Baltimore by photographer Leonard Freed, who became known for his coverage of the civil rights movement.
From the first time I saw the image decades ago, it felt familiar. King was with the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, one of his lieutenants in the freedom movement, who was riding in the front seat. The police officers in the background appeared as the police officers I remembered from my childhood, from their coats to their hats to their badges. I didn’t need a caption or description to know King was in Baltimore.
With the 1964 presidential election just four days away, King visited the city on Oct. 31 and made appearances alongside political leaders, other civil rights leaders, Black clergy and others in a get-out-the-vote effort.
The get-out-the-vote effort was “a fig leaf” covering what was actually a campaign appeal on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, author and King biographer Taylor Branch told me in an interview. The Democratic president had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in July of that year. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his Republican opponent, had opposed the Civil Rights Act.
While King never declared himself a member of either political party, he made clear during the campaign that he believed a Goldwater victory would mean an enormous setback for the civil rights movement and for the country, Branch told me.
“I feel that the prospect of Sen. Goldwater being president of the United States so threatens the health, morality and survival of our nation that I cannot in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represents,” King said in July of 1964.
Goldwater’s nomination set the stage for a realignment of the political parties when it came to support for federal measures to ensure and protect the civil rights of Black Americans, Branch said. Branch is the author of the “America in the King Years” trilogy: the Pulitzer- prize winning “Parting the Waters,” “Pillar of Fire” and “At Canaan’s Edge.” The cover photograph on “Pillar of Fire” is the motorcade image Freed captured in Baltimore, with a closeup of the hands in the crowd grasping King’s.
A Democratic president had signed the Civil Rights Act after decades in which segregationist Democrats in Congress had blocked or defeated civil rights legislation, anti-lynching legislation and other measures introduced on behalf of Black Americans in the South and elsewhere. His 1964 opponent, representing the party of Lincoln, opposed federal civil rights legislation.
Goldwater lost the election to Johnson in a landslide, winning majorities only in his native Arizona and five states of the Deep South.
As King was making election-related appearances in various cities, he received the news that he would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As congratulations came his way, “a subterranean effort” to destroy him was set into motion, Branch said.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was outraged by King’s Nobel selection, Branch said. Hoover’s FBI had a history of pursuing operations that reflected the director’s personal animus against King. In this instance, the FBI used personal information it had gathered about King through surveillance to try to blackmail him, Branch said. The bureau sent King a recording that included a message urging him to commit suicide.
King’s appearance in Baltimore also came as one of the most traumatic episodes of the civil rights era captured the public’s attention.
Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were reported missing on June 22, 1964, a day after they had gone to investigate a church bombing in Neshoba County, Mississippi. On Aug. 4, 1964, their bodies were found buried at a dam site. The FBI investigation to find their murderers continued through the summer and fall, until more than a dozen suspects were indicted and arrested Dec. 4.
“This was an incredibly fraught period in American history,” Branch said.
“King was surrounded by people who were fierce rivals,” Branch said. King found himself under pressure by colleagues in the civil rights movement to direct more attention to the church bombings and other acts of racial terror, Branch said.
King decided that the movement at that moment needed to mount a campaign in Alabama for the right to vote. He promised to have that effort underway before traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, Branch said.
“The mountaintop is great, but the valley calls me,” Branch quoted King as saying.
While visiting Baltimore, King was experiencing “a pinnacle of success, and at the same time, he’s being attacked surreptitiously,” Branch said.
This was all occurring as he met in Baltimore that day with a group of ministers at the Faith Baptist Church, where he spoke in the language he had used during the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, a little more than a year earlier. He would also speak to an overflow crowd of some 1,500 at the Masonic Temple on North Eutaw Street. Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also spoke.
King’s motorcade was on Gay Street, a vibrant shopping district at the time, when he is photographed leaning out of the open car, reaching back to those along the route. He is at once greeting them and pulling them along with him. He shared a moment with those who were investing so much hope and faith in what he was seeking to accomplish. With their country in turmoil, Baltimoreans got to celebrate King for working to change America for the better.
Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s opinion editor.