By Timothy Bella
In April 1963, Clarence Jones, the legal counsel for Martin Luther King Jr., took scribbled bits of newspaper and toilet paper he had smuggled out of King’s Birmingham jail cell and passed them to Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff. In turn, Walker handed them to his secretary, Willie Pearl Mackey King, so she could type them up. By the time she was 22, Mackey had seen racial prejudice at its worst. According to historian S. Jonathan Bass’ account in “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” she had quit her job as a counter waitress at a popular Emory University lunch spot after a group of white students in blackface took a photograph inside the eatery. She later quit another job in the food-service department of an Atlanta hospital after an elderly black coworker was denied treatment for a heart attack because it went against hospital policy to treat blacks.
Now she was typing up a letter that would challenge the cultural acceptability of racial prejudice — even if the greater meaning of the task had yet to dawn on her.
“[King] was so anxious to get a response to [the clergymen],” Mackey King says. “If you have a story you really need to get out and the boss needs you to get it out, you work hard to get it out. The importance of the letter didn’t mean anything to me. Something needed to be done.”