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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, July 30, 1976. Interview G-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Dr. King’s personal commitment to nonviolence

Clark remembers many times when Martin Luther King Jr. acted out his public commitment to nonviolence, even while he was being attacked. She also remembers how he passed that commitment on to others.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, July 30, 1976. Interview G-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

EUGENE WALKER:
In regard to philosophy, a lot of people, I understand, were drawn to Dr. King because of his personality and his charisma. Others were drawn to him because of his non-violent philosophy. What was it that one may attribute to your alliance with the organization, in regard to Dr. King's philosophy?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Thinking about Dr. King, I had the experience of knowing that he was really non-violent. Coming from Albany, Georgia, one night, we were riding in a car, and some white fellows came behind us and finally cut across in front of us. And the young man who was driving us-Dr. King was in the car-got out and went into the trunk of his car and took out a pistol, and the white fellows went on. And Dr. King said, "Frank, do you think I wanted you to do that? No, Frank, that's not the way to do it." Then one night I was on an airplane, Southern . . .
EUGENE WALKER:
What was his last name, do you remember?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
I don't know Frank's last name, really. And coming from Montgomery on a little Southern plane, they had a man as the steward instead of a stewardess. And this was in the early part of '64. A fellow jumped up and slapped Dr. King, and he just moved over. First he said to him, "You're reading about yourself, aren't you?-he was reading the paper-and then he hit him. And Dr. King just moved right over and didn't say a word. And the steward got him and put him back in his seat. In a few minutes he jumped up again and drew back to hit him, and that steward got him and tied him down in the seat until we reached Atlanta. But Dr. King never would strike back. In Birmingham at Gaston's Motel in 1963, before those little girls were killed, we were having a workshop down there. And numbers of men were talking, and Dr. King was introducing a fellow from California. A white fellow came up with his collar wide open, and we wondered if this was the man he was introducing. And when he got up there he hit Dr. King in the face twice. And Dr. King dropped his hands like that of a newborn baby. And I was sitting to the front, and I said, "Don't hit him: Don't hit him:" I knew that he'd just had some trouble with that heart, where that woman stuck that knife or scissors or dagger right across from the heart. And so he dropped his hands, and the other men jumped up, old men eighty years of age and all, they had sticks: they were about to hit him. And Dr. King said, "Don't touch him. Don't touch him. We have to pray for him." But somebody called the policeman. The policeman came and took this white guy away. And they wanted Dr. King to come up and put charges against him, which he refused. And they said he would have to do it, and that afternoon we all prepared to march up to that courthouse. But he decided that he would not prefer the charges against the man. And we found out that it was that guy that was killed by one of his own men in Virginia, Rockwell.
EUGENE WALKER:
It was Rockwell who had hit him?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Rockwell, that's who it was. And so it must have been two years or so after that, a fellow killed him, the leader of that Nazi party. And he wouldn't do one thing. And Mrs. Parks was in that meeting, and she went out and got a bottle of Coca-Cola. She wanted Dr. King to get some Coca-Cola and some aspirins, because she knew that his head must have been hurting at that time. Then in 1963-it was Good Friday-we saw those guys roughing him up to take him to jail because he had planned the march, you know, to get the stores and things opened uptown. At the same time we were working with young people, telling them if they couldn't march without being violent, then we'd have to take them off the line. Well, when I saw him throwing his hands down when somebody hit him. . . . Then another time I was in Chicago, when we had a New Politics convention, and I thought sure they were going to get him then. Blacks were marching around, and seemingly they were angry about it, too. And I thought, "Now they're going to really get him." But they got him out of a door and got him onto the plane, and a policeman herded all of us out through another door and we got home and went away that next day. But we've been in some very . . .
EUGENE WALKER:
So you were absolutely convinced that he was a non-violent . . .
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
I am convinced, because he would not strike back. And he was the only man. I can't tell you that I feel that same way. I can't fight-I've never been a person to fight-but when Fanny Lou Hamer was being tried in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1964 because she and some others went into the front part of a bus station in Indianola, Mississippi. . . . They threw them all in jail, and she is a crippled woman, and they beat her terribly. Well, when I heard those men testifying at that trial, I wished that a chandelier would drop on their heads and kill them. My mind wasn't non-violent. And I don't think that I've gotten to the place today where my mind is quite non-violent, because I still have feelings at times that I'd like to do something violently to stop people.
EUGENE WALKER:
Did Dr. King have a difficult problem keeping most of the flock from engaging in violence?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Well, sure, he did. This guy that spoke this afternoon, C. T. Ribbon? C. T. Ribbon had a fist fight on the [laughter] street outside the courthouse in Birmingham. He started beating up a white man, and we had to grab him and take him inside.
EUGENE WALKER:
Do you remember the year of that?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
That was early '63. Yes, Birmingham, first time. Yes. Oh.
EUGENE WALKER:
Did they fear any kind of problem within the structure of SCLC?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Well, whenever he got the executive group together, he would lecture to them about being non-violent. "You can't win," he said. "You can't win if you're going to fight back." And he had Stokely Carmichael to come to his house to dinner to tell Stokely, "You can't win if you're going to send the boys up and down the street to knock out the window glasses of the stores along Morgan Avenue." And I really felt that he meant it.