“To the best of my knowledge, this is the only church in the area that Dr. King spoke at,” said Rev. Mitchell Simpson, the current pastor of University Baptist Church.
Simpson said King was invited to speak at the church by the Baptist campus ministry at UNC, an invitation which made some members of the church very upset at the time.
“Some powerful people in the church, including a judge who was a member of this church, intimidated the other members and said they wouldn’t allow Dr. King to speak in the sanctuary, but they would let him speak in the fellowship hall,” he said.
Simpson said he didn’t believe that King was ever aware of the controversy.
“But if he had been aware, he doubtless would have been gracious about it, as he was about everything,” Simpson said.“What we’re trying to do with this is rectify an old injustice.”
The dedication took place as part of a biannual joint service between University Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill, which has a predominantly African-American congregation.
After a joint Thanksgiving dinner at 5 p.m., both congregations went down to the old fellowship hall and dedicated the hall to King as they sang “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Simpson said the hymn is one beloved by both congregations.
Valerie Foushee, a North Carolina senator and an active member of First Baptist Church, was there to help dedicate the room.
“These people have never sung together before, but they were harmonizing with each other,” Foushee said of the two churches’ congregants.
“I think that’s really representative of the relationship between us today.”
The event held special significance for Bell, who was not only present at the speech in 1960 but also had dinner with King and the church’s pastor the night before King spoke.
Bell said King unwound as the dinner progressed and became very casual and affable.
“He took his shoes off and put his socks up there and put his feet up on the table, and we just bantered,” Bell said.
Bell said he was at UNC pursuing his master’s degree in English.
“I was a bachelor at the time, and, you know, everybody else at the table was married,” he said. “I was just happy to be eating food that was better than Lenoir.”
He said King laughed at that.
“He understood how bad college dining hall food was,” he said.
Now hanging on the central column of the old fellowship hall at University Baptist Church is a plaque with a picture of King and a quote from the speech he gave 54 years ago.
“We must all live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”