First person: I worked with Dr. King

Longtime Ben Venue resident Pat Saltonstall was sent to Selma, Alabama, by the FBI in September 1963 to gather information about the racial injustices taking place in the deep South.

Saltonstall used what she witnessed to write speeches for Community Relations Service (CRS) director, former Florida Gov. Leroy Collins. At the time, efforts to achieve equal voting rights were met with harassment and violent resistance from Sheriff Jim Clark, his segregationist supporters and other local law enforcement officers, who participated in violence against African Americans with impunity. Hundreds of African Americans were arrested, beaten or threatened in Selma during the first half of 1963.

“Dr. King was brought in by President Johnson to instruct all of us on working in these very, very terrible conditions down in the South,” the 90-year-old Saltonstall said Monday, referring to her meetings with King as part of the CRS, which stemmed from Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “And I sat across the table from him several times, along with a couple of other people in the agency. And I think in the beginning, we were only 16 strong. We were a little, tiny agency, and so I got to know him. And when I came back to Selma, it was the week before everything erupted.

“When I was in Selma, and by the way I went incognito, I had a rental car and nothing that identified me as a government person,” she continued. “I went into the courthouse, in Selma, where Sheriff Clark was running around, ordering everybody around. And he’s the one that was ordering these hoses to be put on little old black women trying to vote. It was just horrible.

“And he turned around, when I walked in. He saw me, and he turned his back on me. And then he said, ‘Well if it ain’t one of guvna Collins’ little girls.’ It made me feel about two inches high, you know? He knew who I was. It was a very scary month for me. I saw a lot. I had never seen all of this kind of injustice. It was unbelievable.”

A male member of the CRS took Saltonstall that week to a Ku Klux Klan meeting in the forest outside of Selma. She said the turnout was overwhelming and alarming.

“Don’t forget, I told you the FBI picked Selma for me because they said it was the safest place. Of all the places they were covering, they thought it was the safest one, and it’s the one that blew up,” she said, alluding to the morning of October 7, when 350 African American residents of Selma lined up at the county courthouse and attempted to register to vote, as what was known as “Freedom Day.” The registrars slowed down the proceedings, limiting registration to only a few people every hour and ensuring that only a handful of those waiting in line would be able to register. Sheriff Clark, his deputies and supporters prevented participants from leaving the line to eat, drink or use the restroom.

Around noon, 40 state troopers arrived and assisted local law enforcement in intimidating the Freedom Day participants. A group of organizers attempting to bring food and water to those waiting in line were beaten and shocked with cattle prods by the state troopers. A reporter was also beaten by state troopers.

Saltonstall was born in Massachusetts, into a prominent New England family, and grew up in Hawaii, where, like President Barack Obama, she attended the Punahou School.

“And so I was used to many different colors of skin, being with each other and going to school together,” she said. “I just never had realized, because I grew up in Hawaii, I never even realized what it was like in the real South, hardcore South.”

Saltonstall had seen Dr. King before, at the famous March on Washington in 1963.

“I started as a reporter with the Washington Star,” she said. “And that day, in 1963, the Washington Star told its reporters, ‘Don’t come to work,’ because they were expecting trouble on the streets. But instead I went straight to, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and I was there the whole time.

“But I didn’t meet Dr. King until I actually worked for the CRS,” she said. “I thought a great deal of him. I liked the way he talked to us. And he was going through a very bad time, himself. This was the moment when the FBI, there were people looking into his personal life, and accusing him of having all sorts of sexual things going on. And so I felt very sorry for him. It was a really hard time for him . . . We asked a lot of questions. Some of the things we had to face were so awful that I couldn’t even imagine them, in the South.

“Because there were terrible things going on, and they were reported in the paper all the time. But we’d never had an agency, before, that was devoted to this. Devoted to conciliation, you see. And at no time were we allowed to discuss it. The agency was very hush-hush, so I never talked about it to anyone outside. It was a definite classified situation where you could not talk about who you had talked to, and that sort of thing.”