When MLK came to town

Two weeks before Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham in 1963, he came to Charlottesville.

The March 25 visit by the most important black leader in America was largely ignored by the University of Virginia, according to UVA civil rights champion Paul Gaston.

Invited by the Jefferson Chapter of the Virginia Council of Human Relations, King gave a speech in Cabell Hall that "rocked the place," writes Gaston in his article, "'Sitting In' in the Sixties." He estimates a thousand people were there, with hundreds trying to touch King afterward.

The speech was followed by a reception at Newcomb Hall, where black and white cupcakes were served and freedom songs were sung.

Later that night, Gaston, King and engineering scholar Wesley Harris were walking around the campus. A car backfired and Harris shielded King against a wall, thinking the noise was a gunshot, a notion that Gaston says didn't even occur to him.

In 1963, many motels in the South were not integrated, but that wasn't the case for the Gallery Court, now the Budget Inn on Emmet Street.

"At that time, the Gallery Court was one of the top-notch hotels in Charlottesville," says Richard L. Jones, who worked there as a night clerk while he attended high school, in the days before there was a Boar's Head Inn or even a Holiday Inn. "Probably more blacks stayed there than anywhere else."

Jones didn't realize King was a guest that night when he started his shift at 11pm. King was just returning from his speech at UVA, and Jones spoke briefly with him. "We shook hands. He said he was proud to see me working and running things. He asked me about college."

"The black help was really moved by the fact he was there," says Gaston. "They came to the room to say how proud they were Dr. King was there."

Later, they sat in King's room and Gaston remembers King predicting, "I'll be shot at sometime."

And he was– five years later at the Lorraine, a Memphis motel that looked very much like the one he stayed in in Charlottesville.

The motel where Martin Luther King stayed in 1963 eerily resembled the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where he was shot April 4, 1968.


Richard Jones worked nights at the Gallery Court and then went to high school. He met King during his stay here in 1963.


[When published in the Hook's print edition, this story contained a locational error, which has been corrected in this online version.]