It was 1960 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas Sr. was a student at the Interdenominational Theological Seminary and visiting the school library, when a chance meeting changed his life and, potentially, altered the course of American history.
“We both happened to be in the library at the same time,” Douglas, now a resident of Clear Creek Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Mint Hill, said. “Somehow we struck up a conversation, and I got to know who he was.”
The “he” Douglas was referring to is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Before meeting in the school library, Douglas didn’t know much about King beyond who he was. In the years that followed, Douglas, under King’s wing, became an integral part of the mid-20th century American Civil Rights Movement, eventually walking arm-in-arm with King in a famous civil rights march in 1965.
Meeting King inspired Douglas to join a student-formed organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which launched a series of nonviolent demonstrations in area stores and restaurants that refused to serve black customers. One of such demonstrations took place in an eating facility in Atlanta’s capitol building.
“When we got there … we were talking about a strategy. We knew if our entire group marched in there at one time, (the restaurant) would immediately close down, and we wouldn’t get any kind of effective response,” Douglas said. “They asked me, being light skinned, if I would sort of go in first and see if they would serve me. If they served me, then the entire group would march in.”
Douglas walked into the restaurant, grabbed a plate and his food, paid his bill and sat down in the cafeteria to eat. None of the restaurant employees batted an eye. When the rest of the group members marched into the restaurant, they were refused service.
“We went directly to the telephone and called our attorney. The law representatives took it in hand, and a suit was filed,” Douglas said.
That lawsuit, Douglas and Reynolds v. Vandenberg, made racial desegregation mandatory for all facilities at the Atlanta capitol building.
The following years involved taking on a number of behind-the-scenes roles that helped pave the way for racial desegregation, both regionally and nationally. Douglas was assigned a pastoral appointment in Montgomery, Alabama, after graduating Interdenominational Theological Seminary in 1962. He continued civil rights work there, which included encouraging schools to respond to desegregation and urging Alabama’s black citizens to register to vote. He eventually became a part of a movement in Selma, Alabama, to recruit black voters.
Douglas joined King and other civil rights activists in March 1965 for the Selma to Montgomery March, during which he walked arm-in-arm with King. A famous photo captured the march, and Douglas became known as “the unidentified white man” due to his lighter skin complexion and a common misconception that he was Caucasian.
Of all his involvements in civil rights activities, Douglas considers the Selma to Montgomery March as the most significant, as it led to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The act was created to enforce the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution more strictly, cracking down on racial discrimination in voting.
“I might say that the Selma to Montgomery project achieved for this nation, for blacks and other minority groups, the greatest piece of legislation,” Douglas said.
When reflecting on King, whom he worked with from time to time, Douglas refers to the revered leader as “jovial,” “good at cracking jokes” and someone who “had a good relationship with all of his staff.” Douglas also said that while King was committed to achieving racial equality in America, he was just as dedicated to ensuring his demonstrations did not include violence.
“He really believed in the nonviolence method of achieving social justice in this country … and encouraged all of those who would be a part of his movement to be nonviolent,” Douglas said. “Those not willing to commit (to nonviolence) couldn’t be a part. That’s how serious he was, because he believed violence was not the answer.”
Now 84 years old, Douglas lives at Clear Creek with his wife, Blanche, of 52 years. The couple has three children and nine grandchildren. Douglas said he’s grateful he was able to continue King’s work for decades after his death, and is pleased to know the United States has made significant progress in working to achieve equality among its citizens.
And one of his favorite memories of King?
“There was a statement where he said he would like to see the day when his little children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their mind,” Douglas said. “… That was the greatest emphasis of his speech.”