Reflections on 1968
Tim Singleton's memoir on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 visit to Georgia State
Former Georgia State Dean of Men and cross-country coach Tim Singleton will be forever remembered as “The Peachtree Papa” for his lead role in founding the Peachtree Road Race in 1970.
Singleton, the founder of the famous July 4 race, which has grown from 110 runners in 1970 to close to 60,000 in 2013, died July 31 at 76. He was also a founder of the Atlanta Track Club and is a member of the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame.
While Singleton’s athletic legacy is how many will remember him — he also played football and was captain of the track team for Georgia Tech and was Georgia State’s cross-country coach from 1966-72 — he was also a well known and respected leader in academia.
He was a Fulbright Scholar three times and earned his Ph.D. from Georgia State in 1976. Besides serving as dean of men at Georgia State, he taught business administration at a small college in Houston for 13 years and was the Lee Anderson Professor of Management at the North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, Ga.
In 1968, Singleton served as an unofficial escort for Dr. Martin Luther King when he visited Georgia State as a guest speaker. King had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A little more than two months later, he would be assassinated in Memphis.
More than 30 years after King’s visit to Georgia State, Singleton wrote a memoir titled “No Family Picnic” recalling the visit. It is a deeply personal and fascinating glimpse into those tumultuous times.
In February, he presented it to the Georgia State University Magazine to be published.
“Since writing it in 1999, I’ve done 40 or 50 presentations to various groups,” he recalled at the time. “And [with] each presentation, and almost daily, there have been reflections for me.”
No Family Picnic
By Tim Singleton
In February 1968, the Georgia State University (then Georgia State College) Young Democrats invited Martin Luther King Jr. to be a guest speaker on campus. Dr. King, who had recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, made a great speech, with a touch of his inspiring Washington speech of a few years before and a hint of the theme of what he said in Memphis two months earlier.
The audience in Sparks Assembly Hall was packed with students and faculty. About half the audience was white. Prior to the 10 a.m. speech, the office of the dean of students sponsored a reception in the Student Center and invited the student leaders and some faculty and administrative staff people. As dean of men, I was very much involved in the reception and served as an unofficial escort for Dr. King while on campus. I was somewhat nervous, not about meeting the great man known to hundreds of millions of people around the world, but about the possibility of something happening, perhaps violence or some kind of demonstration against him. In retrospect, my fears proved to have some foundation. In photographs taken of Dr. King with me at his side, there is a distinct look of apprehension in my eyes, and I certainly remember feeling that way.
After Dr. King’s speech, which was extremely well received, Kenneth England, the Dean of Students and I escorted Dr. King and two of his assistants to his car, then Mrs. King, who was alone, to her car. Throughout the visit, I chatted with both of them. I do not remember any conversation with Dr. King, but do remember talking with Mrs. King about family matters — including both of us bragging about our children. The King children were about the same age as my two sons, so it would seem we struck a note of common interest.
Georgia State, in the late 1960s, had experienced much of the same unrest that occurred on other campuses, although there were no known instances of violence or injury. As late as the 1960s, Georgia State, along with the other “white” state of Georgia supported colleges and universities, remained successful in prohibiting enrollment of blacks. I recall applying to Georgia State in 1962 to take a couple of education classes for teachers’ certification. I was required to take freshman entrance exams, appear for an interview before faculty committee, no doubt for them to ascertain the color of my skin, and have letters of recommendation from two Georgia State alumni. The school required these steps even though I had a bachelor’s degree and significant work on a master’s from Georgia Tech, a school with a much better reputation for academic rigor than Georgia State at that time.
It was obvious to me and others that this was a ploy to make it difficult for blacks to enroll at Georgia State. Georgia State was very clever and skillful in prohibiting the enrollment of blacks. However, almost overnight, with the reasonably successful integration of the University of Georgia, Georgia State’s policy was to integrate, and it did so with incredibly rapid success. By 1966, when I went to Georgia State as Dean of Men, the enrollment was about 10,000 with well over 1,000 black. By 1968, when Dr. King spoke, there were about 14,000 students with about 2,500 to 3,000 of them black.
As dean of men, my responsibility at that time was changing from being the chief disciplinarian, a role which I did not like, to more of a student leadership/organizational development mode. Among other duties, I served as advisor/consultant to the Interfraternity Council (IFC), Student Government Association, and many other student organizations, as well as several special events including Homecoming, Leadership Conclave, Greek Week, and (believe it or not) Black History Week.
Of particular interest for the subject at hand came through my role as the advisor to the IFC, the confederation of the eight social fraternities on campus, and as the advisor to the Greek Week Committee, representing each social fraternity and sorority. About a year before Dr. King’s February 1968 speech, a small group of students discussed with me the possibility of establishing a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a well known national collegiate fraternity, predominately black, with chapters located at black colleges and universities. I thought it was a great idea and encouraged the students to move forward and assured them that my office would help with their efforts in any way we thought prudent and appropriate. One condition, from my perspective, was that the Alpha Pi Alpha chapter be expected to be a full member and participant of the Interfraternity Council. My feeling was that if we were ever to reach some level of racial harmony (a popular concept of the day), we could not have a group representing eight white, at the time, social organizations that did not include a very similar organization whose members were black. I also believed that founding a black fraternity would be a wonderful opportunity for all of us to learn from each other. The Alphas reluctantly agreed to this condition. Rather than ask the IFC to agree, I just told the members that was the way it was going to be.
So the Men of Alpha, as the Alpha Pi Alpha members like to call themselves, quickly got organized, became active in the IFC, with a top-notch team in the IFC flag football league, and began to have a very positive and significant influence on student life at Georgia State. Part of that impact came through the Alpha participation in the 1968 Greek Week activities to be held in early April. An Alpha representative served on the Greek Week committee, and persuaded the committee to sponsor and finance a black entertainer for the whole Georgia State community. The committee contracted with the then well known gospel/folk singer Odetta. The concert was held on a Thursday morning, in early April, as a part of the Greek Week activities.
The large assembly hall in Sparks Hall was at near capacity to hear and see Odetta. I noticed that Coretta Scott King was in the audience enjoying Odetta’s lively performance. At the conclusion of the concert, while Odetta held a small conference with the press, I greeted Mrs. King, and she asked to be introduced to Odetta after she completed the press conference. While waiting, we chatted about several things including the wonderful speech and great reception for Dr. King in that same room two months earlier. We also talked about our families, and I mentioned our planned family outing for the weekend since lovely spring weather was forecast. She said, “Well, you know my husband is in Memphis now dealing with the garbage strike, but he’s coming home on Friday or Saturday, and we plan to go for a family picnic, perhaps to Stone Mountain Park.” At the time I thought, what a neat idea, this Nobel Peace Prize winner, father, husband, a man with untold demands on his life, which had not yet reached its midpoint, was going on a picnic with his family. How ironic that this family whose patriarch was world renowned as the non-violent, moderate, black civil rights leader might be at Stone Mountain State Park, which when privately owned a few years before had been the location for regular Klan meetings and rallies. And the scene of the King family with a picnic spread on the park lawn at the foot of the large carving on the face of Stone Mountain showing the confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and President Jefferson Davis, somehow seemed out of focus. Later, when I thought about it, I could imagine Dr. King explaining to his children how all of that fit into the events of 1968. That same day, in early April 1968, was also the date for one of the most popular Greek Week activities — Sing Night. Sing Night consisted of each fraternity and sorority performing as a chorus or choir for the audience, primarily the other groups and some parents and a few faculty members. It was always one of my favorite activities for students, as each group took such great pride and devoted so much wholesome effort into its performance. That year, Georgia State was holding Sing Night at the Trinity Methodist Church, about three blocks from Georgia State, between the State Capitol building and the Atlanta City Hall.
About 5:45pm, shortly after the first group, amid a flurry of activities in preparation for Sing Night, Rev. Ken Jones, the Minister at Trinity Methodist, slipped beside me on a pew near the front the church, and what I remember in a very calm voice and tone said, “Have you heard what has happened?” Before I could answer, he said, “Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot, and the reports are that he is dead!” My first thought and words to Rev. Jones, I am sure now made no sense to him, were, “There will be no family picnic this weekend.” Later, as I tried to understand why at that critical point in history, I thought of the picnic Mrs. King and I had talked about earlier that day it occurred to me that it may have been my way of connecting with the humanity of it all. This great man was also another human being like me, but his family would never, never be the same again. They will never be able to see and talk to the living father and husband. There will be no picnic this weekend, and any picnic in the future will be different. There will be no father. There will be no husband. This family will never be the same.
At the moment there were much more pressing issues. There were about 500 students, three long blocks from Georgia State, with the news rapidly spreading among us, and we knew around the city of Atlanta, and the world, that this man, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. I thought there was a good chance there would be riots of pain and retribution and those at this event were in danger. I felt fear and a great sense of responsibility. We got the chair of the Greek Week Committee and other leaders and talked with the leaders of Alpha. After a short discussion, the Alpha leaders recommended that Sing Night should go on as scheduled, and the Men of Alpha would escort the whole group back to Georgia State, and even individuals to their cars.
Throughout the two hours of Sing Night, the usual spirit of fun was missing. Several groups cut their performances short. Rumors spread of violent demonstrations in other cities. At the end of the program the several hundred nicely dressed college students walked together from the church to Georgia State, escorted by the Alphas almost as though they were outriders herding a rather large group of animals.
Much of the remainder of this story is a matter of historical record. The weekend mourning period, the over-exaggeration of TV and other media commentators and analysts spreading the blame for this senseless act throughout all of our society, the funeral itself, then for months and years later the search by many find someone to take the mantle of leadership of what many call “the black community.”
So why is Tim telling this now? We officially celebrate the birth of Dr. King, and it has become a national holiday, although it seems to be observed in the breach more often. As I looked at my students, I realized that none had ever met anyone who had ever met Dr. King, much less talked with him or had such significant events in his life in connection with him.
How often do we hear about Dr. King? How many streets, schools, parks and other places are named for him? Every time I hear his name spoken, see some place named for him, or have random thought in which there is the slightest flicker that connects to him, at least part of this story comes to my mind.
When I think about who I am and what I am, part of the equation is the evolution of my thoughts about people who seem to be different from me. He was a man of conscious, strength, calm and peace. Many thought, and still think, that he was a radical revolutionary. My opinion after all of these years, is that he was a voice for moderation and great courage. Who of us have ever had the clarity of purpose and vision, and the courage to do what was within his means to seek that purpose and vision. I would probably have taken the way of “Let someone else do it. I just want to be a regular guy.”
It is now many years since that early April day in 1968, and there have been few days in that time that the power focused around these events has left me untouched. So it is time for this story to be told.