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January 16, 2017

An Afternoon with Martin

Harry M. Covert

It’s a warm June afternoon in 1962. At about 4 o’clock I was in the vestibule of the then Hampton Institute chapel. A light breeze flowed through the windows raised about 12 inches.


Martin, as he was called by his colleagues that day, was waiting to speak to the annual Hampton Institute Ministers Conference. About a 100 clergymen from across Virginia, dressed in dignified dark suits, chatted as they listened to the organ music of the Institute’s music director, an internationally acclaimed musician.


I took advantage of the interlude and introduced myself to Martin as a reporter from the Newport News, Va., Daily Press. We shook hands and I thought it would be time-saving to get a quote or two in advance of his remarks.


He was pleasant, commenting on the nice Hampton weather. He said it was his first time in Hampton, first time at the Institute, today Hampton University, and close by the famed Fort Monroe. Martin said that was the fortress that imprisoned Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.


Well, he knew his history. I knew I could come up with a front-page story on the Georgian’s visit to the preacher’s conference.


After some 20 minutes, the conference leader brought Martin to the platform. I remained on the front row seat. Much to my surprise I was the only reporter in the building. I was also the lone Caucasian in the half-empty chapel. No other media figured it was worth covering. No photographer came to record the event.


I was a bit excited, not so much about the speaker and other orators, but my front-page story coming up, exclusive mind you, a pleasant handshake and good talk. No other news seemed to be breaking that afternoon and I kept figuring and counting on a front-page byline.


These were the days before mobile telephones, the Internet and cable television and radio. We had only three TV stations in Tidewater and only one radio news station in those days. Both the morning and afternoon newspapers were owned by the same company. I was all alone that day, and I would have the jump on other Tidewater, Virginia news hounds,


Excitedly I took notes on cheap yellowed copy paper, trimmed from newsprint for note-taking and folded three ways so as to fit in my suit coat. At 22. I knew I was enjoying what I thought may be a booming career.


Martin walked off the platform after 45 minutes of well-received remarks, greeted pastors with handshakes and came over and thanked me for attending.


There was no entourage with him that day, no security men around and no fire-brand remarks about the impending 1960s civil rights struggle. I had a few good quotes, I thought, and raced back to the newspaper office to write the news.


I called the city desk all excited. Bill Hockstedler, the city editor, didn’t fool around.


“You have one paragraph, Mrs. Bottom’s orders.” She was the owner.


Deflated, I appealed for him to reconsider and begged for more space. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an eloquent speaker, I appealed. He said he knew “America was changing and the South was changing, too.” Pretty good story I thought then and still think so today.


“I said, ‘one graph?’” And so it was; one paragraph; no byline; no front page; and printed near the classified advertisements.


This ignorance of Dr. King’s following didn’t last long among the old-time media editors and publishers because civil rights protests were on the way. Dr. King’s “Dream” has become a reality, and I had a preview of what was to come.


A year later, August 28, 1963, the March on Washington, and the eloquent words of one of the most magnificent orators of perhaps the century changed the United States and the rest of the world. And, it was a spell bounding Baptist preacher from Georgia being honored today who has made a difference.


[Editor’s Note: The nation is celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day – January 16, 2017. This is a special remembrance that previously appeared in The Covert Letter.]


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