“At that time, not only the Baptists were conflicted, but every congregation was conflicted,” Simpson said.
Amidst the controversy, Wes Shrader, the pastor of University Baptist at the time, wanted to prepare a comfortable space for King.
George Bell was one of the few people present at dinner the night before the speech.
Bell recalls how the intimate setting put King at ease.
“When he came in, he was wearing his signature three-piece suit and a hat,” he said. “He was very formal, Dr. Shrader this, and Dr. King that, but then he turned to me and said ‘George, call me Martin.’
“That was a bonding moment. If I saw his ghost walking down the street today, I’d probably still call him Martin.”
Bell also recalls how after dinner, the talk turned to theological matters.
“It was like being back in divinity school,” he said.
That night, King voiced his struggles to reconcile his belief in the goodness of people with the virulent racism he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, faced on a daily basis.
“He said, ‘You wouldn’t believe the phone calls I get,’” Bell said. “‘I am afraid for Coretta to answer the phone.’
“Martin made us aware of what it was like to be married and black.”
Simpson says he hopes times will continue to change for the better.
“Somebody once asked Dr. King, ‘When will we have peace?’ Dr. King responded, ‘Not before the year 2000,’” Simpson said.
“Right now, we as a church are more attuned to King’s vision than we ever have been. We are following and making ourselves disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, who King followed.”
Rodney Coleman, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill, said there’s still a lot of progress to be made.
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done among those who are disenfranchised,” he said. “Dr. King references a check we’re holding, and we’re still waiting to cash that check.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story misattributed comments from the Rev. Mitchell Simpson to Wes Shrader, who died in 1986. Simpson said he hopes times will continue to change for the better. The original story also misspelled Wes Shrader's name. The story has been updated to reflect these changes. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the errors.