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The Daily Tar Heel

University Baptist Church recalls visit from Martin Luther King Jr

Dr. Mitchell Simpson, Pastor of the University Baptist Church, recounted the evening of May 8th, 1960 when Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in the church's Community Room. "I think Martin's spirit hovers around here and he's very happy. Everything that happens in this room is truly what Martin Luther King said was supposed to be going on in churches." Here, Simpson holds an article about the visit in a restored copy of the Daily Tar Heel from 1960.
Dr. Mitchell Simpson, Pastor of the University Baptist Church, recounted the evening of May 8th, 1960 when Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in the church's Community Room. "I think Martin's spirit hovers around here and he's very happy. Everything that happens in this room is truly what Martin Luther King said was supposed to be going on in churches." Here, Simpson holds an article about the visit in a restored copy of the Daily Tar Heel from 1960.

For the Rev. Mitchell Simpson, remembering the legacy of his predecessors, both the good and the bad, is of paramount importance.

“In all candor, no matter how powerful the person or the speech, there is no legacy if the speech is not remembered,” he said.

That’s why at University Baptist Church, the oldest fellowship hall is named after Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1960, King came to Chapel Hill and spoke at the invitation of Jim Cansler, a Baptist chaplain at the University at the time. Some of the deacons were openly segregationist and opposed King speaking in a white church, but others, like UNC-system president emeritus Bill Friday, pushed for him to come and speak.

Eventually, they compromised. King would be allowed to come and speak, but he would speak in the fellowship hall, not in the sanctuary.

“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.

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“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.”

city@dailytarheel.com

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.