Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fighting the Good Fight

Dr. Angela Byars-Winston (left) with her mother, Drucilla Byars. Photo courtesy of Brandie de la Rosa

Drucilla Byars was one of many Black students, led by the NAACP Youth Council, who picketed and staged sit-ins at white-only lunch counters in eight downtown stores in Savannah, Georgia, during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The boycott continued until all facilities were desegregated in October 1963, eight months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared Savannah the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Now 83 and a Madison resident, Byars took a moment reflecting on the legacy of the movement, what got her involved, and what keeps her from having hate in her heart for those with visceral hate towards Black people.

Byars spoke exclusively to UMOJA Magazine during the Women In Focus 37th Annual Dream Ball, which honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  She attended with her daughter, Dr. Angela Byars-Winston, a tenured faculty member in the Division of General Internal Medicine within the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Few knew Drucilla Byars, who out danced everyone at the Overture Center gala on Jan. 15, was a social justice crusader who has first-hand stories of meeting and knowing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta.

Byars was raised in Savanna and attended First African Baptist Church, which is a National Historic Landmark that holds the distinction of being derived from the first Black Baptist congregation in North America. The church served as the center of Black organizing in Savannah, holding weekly meetings and planning demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement.

“My pastor, Rev. Curtis Jackson, and Dr. King were close friends,” said Byars of King, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta . “He did the nonviolence training at my church. Well, I used to babysit for the pastor because he had two little kids. So, when he was traveling with Dr. King, he would be gone. I would stay with his wife and help with their little kids.”

Rare Opportunity to Meet King

One day, her pastor’s wife asked Byars if she could help start dinner. Little did she know the meal she was preparing would feed the world-known civil rights’ leader of boycotts, marches and a national movement in support of racial equality.

“She said the ‘Rev is coming home,’” Byars said. “The pastor’s wife called her husband Rev. She said ‘the Rev is coming back, can you help put something together to cook?’ I said sure, what do you want me to fix. She told me, anything I can find. They had a freezer on the back porch. I found a half a turkey, some frozen greens and made some dressing.”

Pastor Jackson called his wife to say he made it to town and that he was bringing King for dinner.

“She asked me to stay and said her husband was bringing Martin with him,” Byars recalled. “When she said Martin, that didn’t mean anything to me. She asked me to stay to have dinner … I set the table. Then it hit me, she was talking about Martin Luther King. Then, I said, sure I’ll stay!” 

King, who did extraordinary things in life, was extremely humble and sensible.

“I’ll never forget what a beautiful personality he had,” Byars recollected. “He was so different from the way I think he’s projected most times. Oh, he was so down-to-earth. He was cracking jokes and everything. He also told me that the food was good.”

Years later, the two would exchange pleasantries while she took part in an internship at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“I did a dietetic internship at Howard,” said Byars, a retired registered dietitian. “While I was there, the commencement speaker happened to be Dr. King and we were detailed to prepare the meal. I took the liberty of going in the dining room when they were about to assemble. And, he said, ‘Oh, I remember you.’  I was like, oh how wonderful. He was just so down-to-earth.”

Nonviolent Philosophy

Byars admits those rare interactions with King fueled her devotion to standing up for change. Her hometown’s civil rights movement was charted by local African Americans who adhered to the principles of nonviolent protest. She played a role in, and witnessed, Savannah’s racial revolution which brought an end to nearly a century of Jim Crow discrimination.

The training likely spared her life.

“We were picketing downtown in front of Woolworths because at that time Black people couldn’t sit at the lunch counters in the department stores and five-and-dime stores,” she said. “We were picketing back-and-forth and back-and-forth. When I made it to this corner, there were a group of white guys who said, ‘You better not come back this way.’”

She froze.

“I thought to myself what’s going to happen? No one was with me at the time, they were on an adjacent street. I had to make a split decision. But I knew I couldn’t turn around. I didn’t want them to stop me from going to the corner or the street. So, I continued on and they spit in my face. … I had to stay focused on why I was there.”

King, as a theologian, was first introduced to the concept of nonviolence when he read Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience as a freshman at Morehouse College. His nonviolence philosophy was taught to protesters as a way of life for courageous people.  Nonviolence is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation; to accept blows without striking back. 

Byars said she believes if King were alive today, he would still rely on New Testament teachings and peaceful protests to address America’s racial woes.

“If Dr. King were here today, I think he would say do not let people push you to a level below what you know you should be. In other words, don’t allow people to devalue you to the point that they push you to their level. By nature, when you’re hurt, you’re going to say ouch and you’re going to fight back. But there is strength in not fighting back. And that’s hard to understand or believe without having been indoctrinated with that.”