They Walked With Dr. King

Fifty years after his assassination, the civil rights leader still inspires three lifelong activists who were privileged to work alongside him.

The Reverend Gilbert H. Caldwell joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally in Boston, April 1965.
The Reverend Gilbert H. Caldwell joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally in Boston, April 1965.
Photo courtesy of the Caldwell Family/AP Photo

At the national convention of the NAACP in San Francisco in 1956, a group of young insurgents demanded that a 27-year-old minister from Atlanta be given a prominent speaking position. Many of the organization’s elders initially refused, but under pressure from the insurgents, they relented. In the end, a 24-year-old activist from Newark introduced the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the convention stage.

It was a defining moment that helped forge a lasting bond between King and William D. Payne, the Newark resident who was the national chairman of the NAACP Youth Work Committee.

“That was a turning point,” says Payne. “We knew then that we had our own new leader for the civil rights movement.”

Long after King gained international fame as the leader of the movement, his bond with Payne and other activists in New Jersey remained unbroken. In fact, while King is best remembered for his work in the South, he left an indelible mark on New Jersey.

As a divinity student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, King lived a good part of the time at a home on Walnut Street in Camden. (An effort is under way to renovate and preserve the house.) One of King’s first inspirations to become an activist can be traced to Burlington County and Mary’s Cafe in Maple Shade, where the owner refused to serve King and several friends.

In later years, King visited churches, synagogues and schools throughout New Jersey to spread his message of peace and tolerance.

As the nation remembers the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, there are precious few individuals left in New Jersey who personally knew and worked with him. In recent years, the world has lost such notables as Oliver Lofton, an attorney and a former director of the Newark Legal Services Project; Edith Savage Jennings, who helped integrate movie theaters in Trenton; and the late Donald M. Payne, William Payne’s younger brother and New Jersey’s first African-American congressman. Each had worked alongside King.

Luckily, New Jersey can still turn to three octogenarians—William Payne, the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell and Rabbi Israel S. Dresner—whose lives were changed by their relationship with King.

Caldwell was a young divinity student at Boston University when he met King in May 1958. As a member of Boston University’s student organization, Caldwell traveled to Washington, D.C., for a rally on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. King, who had received his PhD. from BU, was one of the speakers at the event. “Dr. King came to Boston several times, and he helped to inspire many of us to continue in his footsteps,” says Caldwell, who retired recently as the minister of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Atlantic City and now lives in Asbury Park. “After meeting him, I became a disciple.”

Caldwell joined King on several historic occasions, including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. His work on behalf of civil rights as a minister in Boston was chronicled in Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s seminal book on school integration in Boston.

Born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, Caldwell spent several summers in the early 1950s working in Atlantic City. “I worked in a hotel where I couldn’t stay, and a restaurant where I couldn’t eat. So, I know things are better today, and that we made a real difference,” he says.

“It was a very exciting time,” recalls Caldwell. “We knew change was coming.”

King on a visit to Rabbi Israel S. Dresner’s Temple Shaarei Shalom in Springfield, 1963.

King on a visit to Rabbi Israel S. Dresner’s Temple Shaarei Shalom in Springfield, 1963. Courtesy of Israell S Dressner/Colin Archer/NJ Photo Agency

Rabbi Dresner was already engaged in the civil rights movement in 1962 when he met King, who was imprisoned in Albany, Georgia, for parading without a permit.

The Wayne resident, who will turn 89 this month, had gotten his start in the movement a year earlier, when he joined a contingent of clergy who traveled south as part of the Freedom Rides—a movement to challenge illegal segregation on interstate buses. Driving through the South to promote civil rights—attempting to integrate bus depots and restaurant counters—was “a very, very scary experience,” says Dresner. “We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but we knew it wasn’t going to be good.”

Indeed, Dresner and his fellow clergy met stiff resistance in places like Raleigh, North Carolina, and Sumter, South Carolina. In each city, the entire police force and an angry white mob confronted them. One night, Dresner, King and other activists were at the home of a local civil rights leader in Albany, Georgia. The home was surrounded for hours by members of the White Citizens Council, a Klan-like group that demanded the outsiders leave. King remained calm, Dresner told New Jersey Monthly in 2011, and the mob eventually went home.

Following his efforts in the South, King came to New Jersey to speak at Temple Sha’arey Shalom, Dresner’s Reform congregation in Springfield. King described the racial landscape in the South and sought to raise funds to support his causes.

“Dr. King came twice to speak to my congregation—once in 1963 when he was nationally known, and again in 1966 when he was internationally known,” recalls Dresner. “We weren’t a wealthy congregation, but most people were deeply affected by Dr. King’s speeches and tried to help however they could.”

Dresner was arrested four times in connection with his civil rights activism, earning the sobriquet, “most arrested rabbi in America.”

William Payne with King at the 1956 NAACP Convention in San Francisco.

William Payne with King at the 1956 NAACP Convention in San Francisco. Courtesy of William D. Payne/Rebecca Panico

Now 85 and living in Newark, William Payne is still marching against social injustice and fighting for equal opportunities for all people.

A former New Jersey state assemblyman who authored the historic Amistad Legislation in 1998 mandating that African-American history be incorporated into the teaching of U.S. history in all New Jersey schools, he continues to serve as a member of the New Jersey Amistad Commission. He is also the chairman of the Donald M. Payne Global Foundation, named in honor of his brother, which works to promote conflict resolution and peace throughout the world.

Payne says there is still much to be done. “I knew people who gave their lives to this cause,” says Payne. “As a young man, I refused to accept second-class citizenship, and I still refuse today.”

All three men recall vividly the moment they learned of King’s assassination; each agrees that King’s teachings still light a path to a brighter future.

Caldwell was at a conference in Chicago the night of April 4. “When we heard the news, we all packed up and left,” he recalls. “We were all very devastated.”

Dresner was in Jerusalem when he received a 3 am phone call with the terrible news. “I started crying right there,” he says, “alone in my hotel room.” In the days that followed, Dresner appeared on Israeli television, speaking about King’s legacy. “Almost 50 years later, there is still much Dr. King could teach us all about peace and getting along,” he says.

For Payne, who had already lost his friends Medgar Evers and Malcolm X to assassins’ bullets, his thoughts on the assassination go back to March 27, 1968, when King visited New Jersey for the last time and conducted a whirlwind tour of churches and schools. One of his final stops was Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark.

“I was speaking to Dr. King on the steps of the church, and he said to me, ‘Bill, I’m exhausted.’” King had just gone to Memphis to help quell anger stemming from the deaths of two African-American sanitation workers and a subsequent strike. Before returning to Memphis, he was obliged to attend a fundraiser to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New York at the home of entertainer Harry Belafonte. “I have to be there,” King told Payne.

King asked Payne to join him at the New York event, but Payne declined. “I told him, ‘Dr. King, I’ll see you next time you’re in New Jersey.’ I didn’t know there wouldn’t be a next time.”

Joe Lauro is a speechwriter and occasional freelance writer based in River Vale.

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