- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009


In the early-morning hours of Jan. 11, days before the inauguration of the country’s first black president, Carl Winfield tied his hiking boots, put on his winter coat and headed north.

He arrived in the District 2 1/2 days later, concluding a 131-mile trek that for him brought closure to the 1960s civil rights movement in which he had participated.

Martin Luther King had planned to march that same route in the spring of 1968, as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, and Mr. Winfield had helped plan the march.

King instead went to Memphis, Tenn., to help resolve a strike by sanitary workers and was assassinated there on the evening of April 4, 1968.

The news media’s attention to Mr. Winfield’s march reconnected Petersburg with the King legacy, which until then had been a story largely forgotten. Many people who lived through the 1960s can recite parts of King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech in 1963. But few remember much about his time in Petersburg.

King was here on at least seven occasions, and his traces can be found everywhere. He recruited much of his top staff from the city. Some of his lieutenants say the national model for the civil rights movement was taken from Petersburg, not Atlanta or Montgomery, Ala.

“I had no idea that he was there so many times,” said Dorothy Cotton, a Petersburg resident who became the only woman on King’s executive staff.

King spoke at local black churches, ate and slept in the homes of local civil rights activists and knocked on the doors in the Blandford neighborhood to urge residents to vote. And on the campus of Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), he delivered one of his key speeches against the war in Vietnam.

“I feel very strongly that Petersburg played an important role in the national struggle,” said the Rev. Milton A. Reid, former pastor at First Baptist Church and a key player in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, pastor at Gillfield Baptist Church throughout the 1950s, became King’s chief of staff and executive director of the SCLC.

“The fact that Dr. King selected me to lead the SCLC is proof that Petersburg played a big role in the civil rights movement,” he said. “The SCLC used the local model of the movement that we had in Petersburg and applied it to the entire South.”

King came to the city in 1956 to speak at the 21st annual convention of the Virginia state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A year later, he returned for his first appearance at Virginia State College. But little is known about the visit because the school did not keep a record of it.

Three years later, in 1959, King spoke at a packed First Baptist Church. That was the day the Rev. Milton A. Reid first met King. “He really turned me around. My ministry took off after we met,” Mr. Reid said. “He taught me that I had to love folks, even if they did me wrong.” In 1960, King came to Petersburg to recruit members for his executive staff.

By 1962, the local movement in Petersburg concentrated on getting a black elected to the 4th Congressional District seat. Voter registration was the key approach, and King came to Petersburg for three days to encourage people to vote.

When King spoke at Virginia State College in July 1965, he shocked many in his movement. The previous year, he had received the Nobel Peace Prize. But in Petersburg he openly attacked U.S. policy in Vietnam for the first time.

The speech resulted in King losing the support of the NAACP, and many in the SCLC disagreed with his new course.

The last time King visited Petersburg, he came to honor his friend, the Rev. Curtis Harris, who received an award for his “outstanding work for the civil rights movement” in June 1967.

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