Elbert Ransom reminisces about King

Elbert Ransom came of age in the southern United States. He has advocated for civil rights since he was 17, the age at which he met a 24-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama. From 1954 to 1968, Ransom worked with King, participating in the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Ransom is an ordained minister and lectures internationally on nonviolence.

He shares these recollections:

On the segregated South

“I drank the water from a white water fountain in New Orleans. I was about 12 or 13. You had the colored fountain and the white fountain. At that point in my life it started gelling in my mind that there’s a lot of differences here. [The white fountain] was connected to electricity that chilled the water. The water marked ‘colored’ was just tap water. And it’s hot in New Orleans! The policeman ran me away. But I was so excited I ran home and told my mother, ‘I had some white water!’”

“I rode the same bus that Rosa Parks rode — [the driver] would have me pay my money at the front door. But to keep me from walking down the aisle and contaminating white people, he would tell me to get off again and go in the back door.”

Meeting King

Two men and woman in center of smiling group with upraised hands (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. (center), leaving court after being found “guilty” of leading the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy (far left). (© AP Images)

“King arrived in Montgomery in April. I arrived in July. He had a classmate at Morehouse [College] in Atlanta who was my voice coach, Robert Williams. He said, ‘I have a friend who’s new in the city too. I’d like you guys to meet each other.’ King was seven years older than I was. We had dinner together one evening. I was so darn impressed with this guy — [King] was so young and so deep. He came for the purpose of serving as the new pastor for a small church.”

“King had studied nonviolence and civil disobedience. I don’t think he ever thought about how he was going to use that. Because I asked him one day, ‘Tell me this: What are you going to do? You’re in this small town with a small church. You’ve got a lot going for you. What are you going to do with your life?’ He said, ‘Well, Bert, one of the things I want to do is do some writing, and I expect to do a lot of speaking.’ And that’s as far as he went. I think [the real calling for King] happened when Rosa Parks sat down in that seat on that bus.”

Police officer taking Rosa Parks' fingerprints (© AP Images)
Rosa Parks is fingerprinted in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, two months after refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat led to a bus boycott that King organized. (© AP Images)

“I used to babysit his first daughter. She said to him once, ‘Dad, I want to go to Fun Town.’ Fun Town was like Disneyland. All the white kids would go there and have a good time: the cotton candy, the rides, all the noise. He was stymied, because for the first time in his life he didn’t know how to answer his daughter — how to tell her she couldn’t go. It kind of baffled him. He ended up saying, ‘One day we’ll be able to go there, but not now.'”

Beyond Montgomery

Men standing in front of building (Courtesy of Elbert Ransom)
Elbert Ransom (far right), Jesse Jackson (second from right) and others protest segregated housing by praying in front of a real estate agency in Chicago in 1966. (Courtesy of Elbert Ransom)

Ransom left teaching to take a fellowship that supported his work desegregating Chicago housing. In the mid-1960s, he reconnected with King. In 1968, he helped plan the Poor People’s Campaign, King’s last major initiative.

“I was preparing for the campaign on the Mall and got a call in a building on 14th and U streets Northwest in Washington. It was a burned-out bank building, and we made offices out of it. We got a call one evening … they said that King had been shot in Memphis. ‘But he’s not dead. We’ll call you back and let you know what’s going on.’ The second call came. He was gone. The streets went crazy. That’s when the burnouts came, and they had to bring the troops in.”

“It was a deep loss for me personally because I learned so much from King. … It became personal and very empty when he was killed. He had so much more to do.”