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A part of history

Friend of Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on his unique experiences with the civil rights leader.

Johnson City Press

MILLIGAN COLLEGE — The Civil Rights Movement was not just for African-Americans — it was for everyone, Martin Luther King Jr. thought.

That is what Milligan College students found out from Harold Middlebrook, a friend to, supporter of and activist for King, when he spoke to them in Seeger Memorial Chapel Thursday morning. And Middlebrook would know what King thought. He met the iconic civil rights activist many years ago while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then spent a few days in jail with him for civil disobedience. Nearly a decade later, Middlebrook was right beside King when he was killed on a secondfloor motel balcony in Memphis.

Middlebrook said he got a unique “chance to meet one of the most prophetic and profound men I think that history will ever record for America. A man deeply concerned about this country. A man deeply concerned about the world and about people period.”

Middlebrook, now a pastor at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Knoxville, said King’s message resonated with him and other students at Morehouse.

“Dr. King had come over to Morehouse to talk to the students there about love and nonviolence and justice,” Middlebrook said. “And we persuaded him, during the course of his conversation, to show us how it’s done. Don’t just tell us.”

So, the group, led by King, went to a local department store for a sit-in. The police were called and the group was arrested.

“We all ended up in the same cell block where we got a chance to be with (King) for several days as he taught us, as he shared with us his vision and his view of love and of nonviolence and of justice,” Middlebrook said.

Middlebrook was not scared in jail. Fear did not cross his mind.

“There’s an old song they used to sing: ‘Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread.’ And when you are about a cause somehow fear seems to kind of leave you,” he said. “You look back later and you see the experiences that you say ‘Did I really do that then?’ But as a youngster, as a college student, you really just kind of get involved because you believe in what you’re doing and what the cause is.”

That cause, Middlebrook said, was waging a second, peaceful, civil war. And while the country has progressed in its pursuit of equality the wars are not yet over.

“The first civil war was a kind of violent one over issues, over race, over economy,” he said. “Then we faced a second civil war that was led by Martin Luther King Jr. that was a peaceful one. And now we’re going through another one based on the economy again and what happens. And in all three cases African-Americans have been involved in leadership and in responsibility.”

Everyone saw the actions of King as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His speeches, marches and demonstrations are well recorded. But Middlebrook said King had the same devotion and integrity and when the cameras were not around.

“Dr. King could be very jovial, very humorous, very down-to-earth,” Middlebrook said. “And he liked to spark discussion, especially among the staff when we were just close together. I think that most people don’t realize he was a down-to-earth, loving father, pastor, husband, friend, brother.”

Middlebrook was with his friend and brother in Memphis on April 4, 1968, the day King was shot and killed.

“I was standing on the balcony looking at him when he was assassinated,” Middlebrook said. “We had been with him off and on that day as he had talked about non-violence and love and his sense of direction for this country.”

King was in Memphis in support of a sanitation worker strike. He and others were preparing to leave their room at the Lorraine Motel and go to a friend’s home for dinner.

“He came out on the balcony,” Middlebrook said. “It was a little chilly.”

King asked a young man he saw named Ben Branch, a musician, to play him a gospel song that night.

“And he said, ‘Brother Ben, I’m glad to see you,’ ” Middlebrook said. “I want you to play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’ And I want you to play it real pretty.’ And when he stood up we heard the pop. And he was no more. It was a very traumatic time for us and a very emotional time. And I get very emotional even now when I’m talking about it.”

More than 40 years after King’s death, Middlebrook said he is sometimes amazed that he participated in such a significant period in American history.

“I think that only a divine God could have arranged events to happen when they did and like they did,” Middlebrook said. “I don’t think that those of us who were around would have had the vision to choose to be with Martin Luther King. I think he came on the scene for a purpose and a time, and thank God we were exposed to that time.”

Johnson City Press Article


MILLIGAN UNIVERSITY is a Christian liberal arts university in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The university offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs.  To learn more about Milligan University, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.

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