Though Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made many public visits to central North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s, including to Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Rocky Mount, he only made two known visits to western North Carolina – in January 1964 and August 1965. Both visits occurred during key moments in the civil rights movement (Calder, 2017 and Hughes, 2015). And though both visits are covered in this essay, his first visit holds particular significance to the civil rights movement as a whole. It was during this first visit that King and his colleagues charted a path for the direction the movement would take as the nation healed from the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as the Civil Rights Act stalled in Congress. The location of the retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, was chosen by Dr. King as a private space in which he and his colleagues could rest, rejuvenate, and strategize for the coming year in relative seclusion and safety.
During Dr. King’s first visit in January 1964, he stayed for several days at the Episcopal Diocese-owned estate, In-the-Oaks, in Black Mountain for a strategic planning retreat with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). According to recently-released Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance documents on King, the retreat was focused on “where do we go from here” (FBI, December 18, 1963) with the civil rights movement. At the meeting, King and members of the SCLC “discussed the accomplishments [of the civil rights movement] in 1963, and the program for 1964.” (Elliston, 2020)
Less than six months later, on July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the new Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law with Dr. King by his side. (King, 1964) By the end of the year, Dr. King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “for his dynamic leadership of the Civil Rights movement and steadfast commitment to achieving racial justice through nonviolent action.” (Civil Rights Digital Library)
A little over a year and a half later, in August 1965, King returned to western North Carolina to give a keynote speech entitled, “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension” to nearly 3,000 people attending the Presbyterian Christian Action Conference in Montreat’s Anderson Auditorium. In the speech, King spoke to key civil rights issues including social and economic inequality, segregation, nonviolent action, and the church’s moral obligation to serve everyone regardless of skin color. Though met with resistance from within the church as well as from some in the local community, King’s speech, and the conference in general, was a turning point for many white Southern Presbyterians in how they thought about race, segregation, and civil rights. (King, 1965 and Pitts, 2015)
SCLC Retreat at In-the-Oaks, January 20-22, 1964
A few months after the murder of four young girls in the bombing of an Alabama church and a few weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson about issues of race. King’s trip to the oval office delayed a much-needed retreat he had planned with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Black Mountain, NC. After King left Washington, he flew to the Asheville airport and then traveled by car to Black Mountain for a needed reprieve and to begin plotting a track for the civil rights movement in 1964. (Elliston, 2016) On his way from Asheville to Black Mountain, members of his party noted a 1960 white Oldsmobile driven by a white man that appeared to be following them. They stopped to alert a NC Highway Patrolman and continued on their way with no other problems. (FBI, January 24, 1964)
King was relatively quiet about his plans to retreat in Black Mountain due to impending threats to his life as well as ongoing FBI surveillance. Beyond investigating his political activities, the Bureau kept tabs on his taxes, hoping to silence him with a tax evasion charge. Though confidential at the time, newly-released FBI documents shed light on King’s plans for his Black Mountain retreat. A December 18, 1963, confidential source informed the FBI that King had told Clarence Jones, the General Counsel for the Gandhi Society for Human Rights in New York City, that he was planning a “retreat like” conference at In-the-Oaks, which would “give ‘us’ time to get a little recreation.” King mentioned to Jones that In-the-Oaks had a swimming pool and bowling alley and that he was “thinking of taking 20 or 30 people…[to] sit down and really discuss the program…for 1964, and looking over 1963.” King planned for the retreat to be “a where do we go from here discussion.” (FBI, December 18, 1963)
There was little local media coverage of King’s visit to western North Carolina, especially in the immediate vicinity, as the local papers did not want to seem politically aligned with King. Newspapers out of Charlotte, NC, did briefly report on King’s “staff retreat,” even naming the location as In-the-Oaks on January 21. King commented on the first day of the retreat that though churches had made progress on civil rights issues, “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.” He continued, “The problem of civil rights is a national one and no section of the country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.” The paper continued to paraphrase King’s comments, “He predicted that the next movement in civil rights would be in the form of an all-out assault on the problem rather than a concentration of one particular phase.” (The Charlotte Observer, January 21, 1964)
Asheville Citizen reporter Lewis Green remembered being assigned to cover King’s visit. In his memoir, Of Human Interest, Green, a white man, recalled, “…as a reporter for the daily newspaper here I was assigned to cover [King]. My beat was normally the police/courts beat, and since there were heavy security considerations about King’s visits, that came under my beat…. [King] would fly into the Asheville Airport, where he was met by functionaries…. Henry P. Clay was Sheriff at that time, and he provided several deputies to escort King’s convoys to the destination and back to the airport. One black officer he always assigned personally to MLK was the late Bruce Steele of West Asheville. I generally rode in one of the cruisers. At that time, King was hotly controversial and in keeping with its policy, the newspaper management did not want very much written.” (Green, 2003) No coverage of King’s visit appeared in the Asheville paper until after his departure. The weekly Black Mountain News made no mention of King’s visit.
There is no complete account of the retreat, at least in part due to King’s valid concerns about FBI surveillance. King’s colleagues with the SCLC had audio taped the discussions at the retreat, but when Harry Wachtel, one of King’s advisors, warned King that it was more than likely that the FBI was attempting to infiltrate the organization, the recordings of the summit were destroyed. And as formerly-classified documents from the FBI detail, King was indeed under surveillance. (Elliston 2016 and Branch 1999) In fact, in advance of the retreat FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who held a grave dislike of King, sent agents to In-the-Oaks. They recruited a local person (whose name has been redacted) to secretly report back on King’s visit. Ultimately, little was reported to the FBI other than a vague post-meeting summary that read, “at the meeting they discussed the accomplishments (in the civil rights movement) for 1963, and the program for 1964.” (Elliston, 2016 and FBI, January 7, 1964 and January 23, 1964)
More recent oral histories from those in attendance give a more detailed picture of King’s time in Black Mountain in January 1964. Reverend C.T. Vivian, who attended the summit, told historian Ben Kamin, “[King] did sometimes [unwind] during those days in the mountains, believe it or not…. There was some relaxing time and jokes and fun. We took breaks and played softball and Ping-Pong, cards, and Martin just seemed to let off a lot of steam.” (Elliston, 2016 and Kamin, 2014)
In oral histories recorded in 2003 and 2005, Black Mountain resident and former maid at In-the-Oaks, Inez Daughtery, recalled meeting King during the retreat. Daugherty said, “I know I had a privilege of meeting Martin Luther King. And he talked to me at length about the things he was going through and the things he was doing. And he told me, he said, ‘Mrs. Daugherty,’ he said, ‘…the work I’m doing,’ he said, ‘I know that I am going to die a violent death…. And I live prepared to meet my Maker each day because I know that I will be killed.’ And he was. He was.”
Daughtery continued, “I was working at In-the-Oaks down at the Episcopal Center. And they came for retreat. [King], Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy and their group.” Though King had been advised to travel by car rather than plane for better anonymity, King chose to fly. Daughtery remembered, “The minute he stepped off the plane [in Asheville] and got in the terminal, some lady said, ‘Hello, Dr. King.’ It was out. Next morning the phone was ringing all day [at In-the-Oaks], looking for Dr. King. [They’d say], ‘He’s in this area, somewhere and we want to find him. We want to know where he is.’”
“So finally, about five o’clock that evening, Henry Clay, the sheriff…called…. I said, ‘Mr. Clay, I want to ask you something.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘What do you want with Mr. King?’ He said, ‘Well, Inez, a man of his stature, status and all,’ he said, ‘people want to do him harm. Wherever he is, I want to give him protection.’ So, I said, ‘Well, I’ll talk to my manager and he’ll talk to you and tell you if he’s here or not.’ And [Clay] sent a man [Bruce Steele] out to patrol the area…. And, one afternoon, there’s a young white man came rang the bell. ‘I heard Dr. King is here.’ …he was going to come in the house. Well, they didn’t know whether he wanted to see him or do him harm so they got the police to get him away from there.” (Daughtery, 2003 and 2005).
The retreat itself seemingly went off without any major hitches. Despite limited records, Branch and other King historians have pieced together the basic work of the SCLC in Black Mountain which, perhaps most importantly, included how to “counter allegations of Communist influence on their movement, and when, where, and how to mount new civil disobedience campaigns.” (Elliston 2016 and Branch 1999).
Soon after King, his wife, and several of his colleagues boarded his 8:30pm departing flight from Asheville to Atlanta on January 22, they were asked to deplane. They soon learned that the flight had been delayed due to a bomb threat. As King walked back to the airport from the plane, he remarked to his staff member, Dorothy Cotton, “I’ve told you all that I don’t expect to survive this revolution; this society’s too sick.” (Elliston, 2016)
According to an FBI memo, a female, who identified herself as a telephone operator from Birmingham, Alabama, called the Asheville Airport and asked to speak with King. King’s assistant, Wyatt Tee Walker, took the call. The woman told Walker, “You had better get that S.O.B. out of Asheville, North Carolina. I hope there is a bomb on the plane,” then hung up the phone. Apparently, the same woman had called the day previously and said “something about they better get Marth Luther King out of Black Mountain before somebody kills him” and had also called twice before King arrived at the airport on the 22nd to ask where King was staying and what flight he was on out of Asheville. There was some hesitancy among local officials about whether the call was long-distance or local. The plane was searched, no bomb was located, the plane departed Asheville at 11:17pm, and King and his party arrived home safely. (FBI, January 24, 1964)
The bomb scare did make local papers, likely because Asheville Citizen reporter Lewis Green managed to sneak onto the plane to help with the search for the bomb. Following the search, Green had a conversation with King in the airport waiting room. King asked him, “Now, as a middle-class white man, what are you doing for Civil Rights?” Green denied being middle class and told King, “I’m active in programs on alcoholism. I just can’t save the whole world. You take care of the black problem and I’ll handle what drunks I can, black or white.” (Green, 2003) Still, Green only publicly reported at the time, “King declined to comment while he waited except to observe this was the first time he had been forced to leave a plane.” (Asheville Citizen, January 23, 1964) Newspapers across the United States, and even into Canada, covered the bomb threat, but wrote little, if anything, about the retreat itself.
Christian Action Committee Keynote Speech at Montreat’s Anderson Auditorium, August 21, 1965
Over a year and a half later, Martin Luther King returned to western North Carolina, this time for a public appearance as the keynote speaker at the Christian Action Conference of the Southern Presbyterian Church. The conference them was “The Church and Civil Rights.” He had originally been set to open the three-day event, but was delayed by a major riot in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. King detoured to LA to help diffuse the tension, then made his way to North Carolina, arriving on August 20, 1965. (Calder, 2017 and Elliston, 2016)
In the months leading up to the conference, the Presbyterian Church fielded letters, telegrams, and phone calls expressing strong feelings about King’s planned speech – some in support, many in opposition. An August 6, 1965 article in the Asheville Citizen entitled “King’s Montreat Talk Already Stirs Unrest,” reported “…King’s scheduled speech at Montreat, N.C., this month has caused considerable controversy…. The invitation to King had brought communications opposing it. But…there were also communications commending the board for its action.” (Asheville Citizen, August 6, 1965)
Opposition to the King’s presence at the conference had been ongoing for months inside and outside the church. Shortly after King had been invited and agreed to be the keynote speaker for the conference, a South Carolina elder within the Presbyterian organization had requested that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church withdraw the invitation to King to be the keynote speaker. But the General Assembly voted 311 to 120 to reject the request and reaffirm King’s invitation. Though the church continued to receive opposition (as well as support) for King’s appearance, there was no further discussion of resending his invitation. (Asheville Citizen, August 6, 1965)
As the date of King’s speech approached, the FBI were on high alert for any threats to King’s security. On August 14, 1965, an informant told the FBI that he had overhead “a man, whose name he did not know, say something about having two 8 millimeter rifles which would pinpoint a target 500 yards. When asked what he was talking about, he said, ‘I guess he was talking about that S.O.B. who is coming to Montreat next week.’” The FBI informed law enforcement in Asheville. (FBI, August 14, 1965)
On August 15, white evangelist Billy Graham, who made his home in Montreat, spoke about the L.A. riots to an “overflow” audience in Anderson Auditorium, where King was schedule to speak in two days’ time. A staff writer for the Asheville paper wrote on the front page alongside headlines about the riots, “Although he didn’t name any individual, it could be inferred that he was referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [when he said,] ‘Any religious leader can express his personal views as an individual. However, President Johnson and the Congress are perfectly capable of handling American foreign affairs if they have the support of the people.’” (Asheville Citizen, August 16, 1965) Graham was specifically referring to King’s outspoken critiques of the Vietnam War.
As the nation watched the L.A. riots, concern among local residents and law enforcement about King’s visit grew. A Tuesday, August 17, 1965 article in The Charlotte Observer entitled “Don’t Visit N.C., Dr. King Told,” read “Solicitor Robert S. Swain of Buncombe County said Monday after conferring with law enforcement officers he felt it would be better if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not visit a church meeting at Montreat Thursday. ‘We do not need any outside agitators in this area,’ said Swain in an interview with a local radio station. Swain said he made his remarks in view of the riots in Los Angeles.” (The Charlotte Observer, August 17, 1965)
Swain continued by asking “that there be no demonstrations against the King visit” and that “there was always an element in a community that could cause trouble.” He felt King’s visit might “set them off.” (The Charlotte Observer, August 17, 1965) And the day King was set to arrive, “’anti-King’ literature was distributed…at this usually peace community, the home of The Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist, by ‘a lot of people who were unknown…a rough looking group.’” Henry P. Clay was still sheriff of the county. He had received reports “that certain outside violent hate groups have planned demonstrations and law-breaking acts at this gathering,” but declined to name the groups. “We’ll screen everyone coming in,” he said, “and we’ll search autos and individuals for guns if necessary.” (The Daily Times-News, August 21, 1965)
The Asheville paper, which had only covered King’s impending visit on page 18 the day before, placed news of the cancelation of his talk on the front page with the reason for his cancellation – “he is visiting Los Angeles.” (Asheville Citizen, August 19, 1965) Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, director of the United Presbyterian Church’s Commission on Religion and Race, spoke in King’s stead. Dr. Wilmore, a Black man, had spent five days in the riots before arriving in North Carolina. In his opening speech, the Charlotte paper noted that Wilmore described the riots as springing from “frustration and deperation” of African Americans and referred to the riots as a “revolt for humanity and dignity.” (The Daily Independent, August 20, 1965) The same day, a staff writer with the Asheville paper, quoted Wilmore as saying, “The demonstrators are saying, ‘Look at me, I’m a person. I live in that place – you’ll see me, I’m black and poor but I’m an American and I am human. I will not let you rest in your tranquil community and ignore me anymore.’” (Asheville Citizen, August 20, 1965)
King rescheduled his talk for Saturday, August 21, 1965, at 2:00 pm. He arrived at the Asheville airport at 1:00pm. Five sheriff’s deputies escorted King from the airport to Montreat. (The Charlotte Observer, August 22, 1965) Sheriff Clay told the Asheville paper that “the sole responsibility for the safety of Dr. King has been thrust upon my department by the Federal agencies.” As such, though the speech was supposed to be open to the general public, Clay said he would refuse entrance to anyone who did not have “business there.” Clay continued, “It is my intent that this county remain peaceful and law-abiding. Recent happenings such as those in California, Chicago, and Massachusetts will not occur in Buncombe County.” (Asheville Citizen, August 21, 1965 and The Daily Times-News, August 21, 1965)
Glenn and Evelyn Bannerman, two long-time white Montreat residents, recalled of King’s visit, “People were concerned about what might happen and what demonstrators might do to the extent that some of the Montreat maintenance staff armed themselves with a . . . pistol . . . and standing at doorways . . . because somebody feels like something’s going to happen.” (Bannerman, 2016)
Montreat remained peaceful that day. Dr. King took the podium and spoke for nearly an hour to a crowd of hundreds, perhaps thousands. “The greatest challenge facing the church today is the racial situation,” King said to the audience. After the speech and a question and answer session, King greeted the gathered crowd. One local resident and member of Black Mountain’s Black community, Jessie Sherrill, impulsively asked for his autograph. (Swannanoa Valley Museum) King was escorted back to the airport. His flight took off just after 5:00pm without incident. (FBI, August 21, 1965)
Fifty years later, in commemoration of Dr. King’s speech in Montreat, the Montreat Conference Center hosted another three-day conference in Anderson Auditorium entitled, “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda: A Teach-In for Rededicating Ourselves to the Dream.” Keynote speaker, activist and Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts, speaking exactly 50 years after King, from the same pulpit, said, “Half a century ago, Martin Luther King came to this place fresh from a riot in . . . Los Angeles to give a speech. In that speech he said a lot of things that he had said in other places. He spoke, for instance, of the neutrality of time; the fact that while people think that time makes change, it is actually people who make change in time. He spoke of the inter-relatedness of life, the fact that we are—as he liked to put it—threads in a single garment of destiny. But he also said some things that he did not say every place else. I’m not sure if he said them any place else, but I know he didn’t say them very often. The title of the speech was ‘The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension’ but if you listen closely, much of what Dr. King had to say was actually about the church’s failure to be on that frontier, about its moral timidity, its refusal to lead in the cause of justice. ‘People of faith’ said Dr. King, ‘have an obligation to speak up for racial justice’ but . . . ‘we must admit . . . that all too often the church has been lax at this point. All too often, in the midst of social evil, too many Christians have somehow stood still only to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. All too often, in the midst of racial injustice, too many Christians have remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows.’ And so, here we are….”
“Airliner Delayed By Threats,” The High Point Enterprise, January 23, 1964.
Bannerman, Glenn and Evelyn. Oral History by Mary Page Boyd, January 10, 2016. Quoted in Boyd, Mary Page senior thesis.
Branch, Taylor, Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years, 1963-1965, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Boyd, Mary Page, “The Contest Public Memory of Race In Montreat, NC,” Senior Thesis, UNC-Chapel Hill, 2016.
“Church Integration Gain Slow, King Says,” The Balitmore Sun, January 21, 1964.
“Church Meet Guarded For Martin Luther King’s Visit,” The Daily Times-News, August 21, 1965.
“Church Must Heal, Not Flee, Race Woes, Says Dr. King,” The Charlotte Observer, August 22, 1965.
Daugherty, Inez. Oral History by Donna Kelly, April 28, 2005, Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center Oral History Collection.
Daugherty, Inez. Oral History by Jerry Pope, March 17, 2003, Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center Oral History Collection.
Dills, John C. “Evangelist Sees World on Fire,” Asheville Citizen, August 16, 1965.
“Don’t Visit N.C., Dr. King Told,” The Charlotte Observer, August 17, 1965.
“Dr. King To Appear At Montreat Today,” Asheville Citizen, August 21, 1965.
Elliston, Jon. “Through the Fires: Martin Luther King Jr. Visited WNC at Tow Turning Points that Shaped the Civil Rights Struggle.” WNC Magazine, January 2016. https://wncmagazine.com/through-fires
Elliston, Jon. “Tracking MLK: FBI records reveal surveillance, threats during WNC visits,” Carolina Public Press, January 20, 2020. https://carolinapublicpress.org/24014/tracking-king-fbi-records-reveal-surveillance-threats-during-wnc-visits/
Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Documents on Martin Luther King in western North Carolina, 1963-1965.” https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2691004/FBI-documents-on-MLK-in-WNC.pdf
Green, Lewis. “Bomb Hoax Delays Departure of King,” Asheville Citizen, January 23, 1964.
Green, Lewis. Of Human Interest. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2003.
Kamin, Ben. Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers. Michigan State University Press, 2014.
King, Jr., Martin Luther, Statement on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, June 19, 1964.
King, Jr., Martin Luther, “The Church on the Forefront of Racial Tension,” (speech, Christian Action Conference, Montreat, NC, August 21-23, 1965). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kF5VVPzcM9s
“King Cancels Thursday Talk At Montreat,” Asheville Citizen, August 19, 1965.
“King Says Churches Most Segregated Area,” The Charlotte Observer, January 21, 1964.
“King’s Montreat Talk Already Stirs Unrest,” Asheville Citizen, August 6, 1965.
“King, Others To Take Part In Race Parley,” Asheville Citizen, August 18, 1965.
“King Says N.C. Reasonable State,” The Charlotte News, January 21, 1964.
“Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Prize,” Civil Rights Digital Library, http://crdl.usg.edu/events/mlk_nobel_prize
“Montreat Speaker Hits L.A. Rioting,” The Daily Independent, August 20, 1965.
“Newest Trend, Montreat Speaker Says Of L.A. Riots,” Asheville Citizen, August 20, 1965.
Pitts, Leonard, “Keynote Address, Lecture, Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda: A Teach-In for Rededicating Ourselves to the Dream,” Montreat, NC, August 21-23, 2015.
Written by Anne Chesky Smith