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The South African Visitor

By Don McEvoy

Don McEvoyThe telephone rang in our Atlanta home half an hour before the alarm clock was set to go off.  I  can’t recall the exact date, but it was sometime in late 1962 or early ’63.   At that time I was serving as Regional Director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for the two states of Georgia and Alabama.  Halfway around the world Nelson Mandela was in the second year of his more than twenty years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

The  voice on the other end of the telephone line said he was calling on behalf of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and that I should listen carefully to the message he was to convey.  My initial reaction was that this was a joke some old college buddy was pulling on me.  Or it could have been something orchestrated by the KKK or the John Birch Society, or God-only-knows who.  But I knew enough to play it straight just in case the information was legit.  It was.

I was told that an important official in the African National Congress in South Africa was in Washington, DC for “unofficial” talks with the Kennedy administration.  He had been allowed to enter the United States with the stipulation that he would not travel more than fifty miles from our Capitol.  The talks had gone well and the visitor was scheduled to return home to South Africa on the following day.

But he had expressed a burning desire to have the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. while in America.  How could that be possible given the restrictions on both travel and time?  That was what this early morning phone call was about.

Arrangements had been made by the Attorney General’s office for the South African guest to be flown to Atlanta under an assumed name that morning, to meet with Dr. King, then catch an afternoon flight back to D.C.  His official schedule would be written-up in a way that covered the unaccounted-for hours.

Okay.  But why were they calling me?  Bobby Kennedy knew well that King’s phones, (home, SCLC office, and Ebenezer Chuch) were all bugged by the FBI.  After all, he had given J. Edgar Hoover permission to install the listening devices.  How could they get word to MLK that the South African freedom fighter wanted to meet with him without the FBI discovering the plot?

That’s where I came in, and why the call was so early in the morning.  As far as Kennedy’s office could ascertain our phone was not tapped.  They were not sure whether or not the NCCJ line was bugged.  So, don’t take chances.  Call McEvoy at home and ask him to get the word to Dr. King in person, arrange a time and place for them to get together, meet the plane, stay with the African visitor for several hours and get him safely back on the plane for his return flight.

So far, so good.  But I shortly discovered that Dr. King was out of town, along with all of his top associates.  Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young, C.T. Vivian, Hosea Williams, all of the SCLC inner-circle were unavailable.

All  that seemed to be left for me was to take the incognito visitor to meet with Martin’s father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr.  Actually it turned out to be a more than satisfactory substitution.  The elder King was in his glory, proudly recounting stories from the early life of his famous offspring.  Tales of incidents that were predictive of courageous leadership at a very early age.  Others that had prompted despair on the part of his parents that this boy would ever outgrow adolescence.  The visitor was spellbound by these revelations.  I sat silently, entranced by stories I had never heard before.

Then the direction of the conversation changed.  Daddy King began to ask probing questions of his guest from Johannesburg, revealing a surprising lack of information about the situation in that faraway land, but also showing a hunger for more knowledge of the situation there.

As I recall it, our conversation essentially ended when Daddy King hammered a fist into his desk top and said, “Dammit, you make it sound as bad as Mississippi.”

The two men embraced as we parted.  The flight back to Washington National was on time.  That was the last I ever heard of the matter.  Though I did hear, in later years, of the “anonymous” visitor’s close identification with Mandela when he became president of the new South Africa.

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POST SCRIPT………………….

One of the first people I met after moving to the Wesley Palms Retirement Community was fellow resident Jack Keith who had been Agent-in-Charge of the Atlanta office of the FBI back in the 1960s.  He and I spoke often, had numerous meals together, reminisced at length about Atlanta and mutual friends and acquaintances we had there.  But we never spoke of his agency’s surveillance of MLK, Jr.

He had to know of my friendship with King and the many threads of interaction between us.  An astute FBI Agent like Jack could not have been unaware, but he maintained a professional silence to the very end.  I regret, now, that I never pressed to get his side of this story.  Perhaps it is best that I didn’t.

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Don McEvoy served churches in Oklahoma City and Chicago for sixteen years before assuming an ecumenical ministry with the National Conference of Christians and Jews.  He was regional director for the two states of Georgia and Alabama during the critical years of the Civil Rights revolution.  He then transferred to the New York headquarters and was Senior Vice President for National Program for nearly two decades.

 

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