By Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
Through historic documentaries and books on the life and service of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Americans are familiar with a warrior for peace who spoke, marched, was jailed, and eventually would die for freedom, equality, and justice for all.
But 91-year-old retired Milwaukee public school teacher Cherrye Trotman knows another side of the iconic, erudite preacher and legendary civil rights leader who, along with his wife Coretta Scott King, was a personal friend.
“I knew him before he became a pastor in Atlanta in his father’s (Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.) church,” said Trotman during a recent interview recalling her friendship with King and his family that started in Montgomery, Alabama where Trotman was born and grew up.
She first encountered King as a student at Alabama State University, a historical Black university in Montgomery. Trotman remembered seeing King at a football game in Montgomery between Alabama State and Morehouse University where he was a member of that school’s cheerleading squad.
Trotman would later meet King more formally in her home town where King was hired to be the pastor of her family’s church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, ground zero for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, recognized as one of the first successful major struggles in the Civil Rights Movement.
At the time of their formal meeting in the mid 1950s, Trotman had not yet married. She was Cherrye Ballard then. The Kings lived four blocks from her parents’ home, and she had gone to their home at the suggestion of her mother to ask him for a donation for school.
“He was a very friendly and caring young man,” recalled Trotman of their first meeting.
Trotman also knew Rosa Parks, who was a seamstress and a member of the NAACP Branch in Montgomery. It was Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a White man that led to her arrest, which sparked the year-long bus boycott in which Black citizens refused to utilize the Montgomery transit system to protest segregated seating, preferring instead to walk or car pool with other Black residents.
King was one of several pastors who, along with E.D. Nixon, a Pullman Porter and president of the Montgomery NAACP (which would be known as the “Montgomery Improvement Association when King became its president during the boycott) went to pay the fine of $14 and get Parks out of jail.
Trotman recalled during a meeting following Parks’ release to discuss what to do next, King made a motion to boycott the Montgomery Buses “to let them know we’re not going to take this,” he said.
But the boycott was not the immediate success depicted by history books, Trotman noted. It eventually did get off the ground, thanks to the hard work of NAACP members to encourage Black Montgomerians to walk and/or drive themselves and other Black people to work or shopping; Alabama State students with money buying cars directly from Detroit to transport members of the community, and Black citizens determined to come together to dismantle a major symbol of the Jim Crow South.
Trotman, who had just started teaching at schools in counties around Montgomery, remembered the presence and impact of the Black newspapers from all over the country sending its reporters to the city to cover the year-long boycott, writing stories about its success in bringing the city’s bus company to its knees.
The Black press also covered the backlash of the bus boycott, which came in the form of bombings. Trotman said a White owned cab company called Liberty was used to bomb Black properties, churches, and businesses.
She recalled nine churches were bombed in one night. A total of seven Baptist churches were bombed, including a Lutheran church.
Amazingly, Dexter Avenue Baptist wasn’t among the affected churches.
However, it didn’t mean White racists—either members of the Klu Klux Klan, or individuals working on behalf of the city’s White Citizens Council and determined to stop the boycott—left King and his family untouched.
Far from it.
One night as King was working in his den and his wife and children slept, racists threw a bomb into his home. Fortunately, while it destroyed the front of the home, the Kings were in the rear of the house and were unharmed.
Angry at the attempt on the lives of King and his family, some Black residents wanted to take up arms and go after the bombers, who were believed to be members of the White Citizens Council.
But King stopped them. “He told the Blacks with guns to put them away,” Trotman recalled. “He said, ‘those who live by the sword, die by the sword.’”
By the time King and his growing family moved back to Atlanta, where he became associate pastor under his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Trotman had moved to Milwaukee and married, one of a growing number of Black teachers teaching in school system in a city with its own brand of racism. Trotman was part of the movement to name Third Street after King.
“His job was to make the world a better place,” Trotman said the man who would go on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, earn “Man of the Year” honors from Time Magazine, whose “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 still resonates in the minds and hearts of all lovers of liberty and justice. And though his untimely death in Memphis in 1968 killed the dreamer, it did not kill the dream.
Trotman said King seemed to be on a mission to make the world better. “He wanted Black people to succeed and America to be one—all races and religions—to get passed the divisiveness and be united.”