This story was corrected on Jan. 17 at 10:00 a.m. An explanation of the corrections follows.
For a week in 1963, the only things that came across Willie King’s office desk were scraps of toilet paper and napkins.
King said she never would have guessed how important those scraps would become.
King, of Silver Spring was 21 when she was hired as a secretary at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, based in Atlanta. She worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., no relation to herself, who was then president of the organization.
During the four years Willie King spent there, she worked behind the scenes as the protests and impassioned declarations that became synonymous with Dr. King’s image took place.
In April of 1963, Dr. King was arrested and imprisoned in Birmingham for participating in a protest. While in jail, Dr. King read a statement from eight clergymen, calling for civil justice to be carried out in the courts, not the streets.
He started writing an open letter to them, using any paper he could find. Willie King said her supervisor, civil rights leader the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, and Dr. King’s attorneys brought in piles of tissue paper, toilet paper, the margins of newspapers and napkins covered with Dr. King’s handwriting.
“I had the unpleasant task of trying to read his chicken scratch,” Willie King said.
Dr. King seemed very anxious to get out his message, she said. He thought his fellow clergymen would be more understanding, and wrote to defend his beliefs and express his frustration with the status quo.
She worked through several mornings, evenings and nights, painstakingly feeding each word into her typewriter. When she fell asleep at her desk, the Rev. Walker lifted her from her chair and continued typing.
The document would later become known as Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“Everything we did was important, but it was not something that was going to be turned into a masterpiece like it is,” Willie King, now 72, said. “It was another piece of work that needed to be done correctly, and it needed to be done quickly.”
She found the position with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when a neighbor, civil rights leader Dorothy Cotton, told her the organization was looking for a secretary.
Willie King had been searching for a job soon after she graduated from Georgia State University. She saw signs in Atlanta shop windows saying, “Help Wanted,” but employers told the young black woman to look elsewhere for work.
“It didn’t dawn on me that the reason I wasn’t getting a job is because I was the wrong color,” she said.
Cotton took her in, and Willie King started working for the organization in February of 1961. On her first day, Dr. King greeted her with a big smile and a genuine welcome.
“He made me feel real at ease,” Willie King said.
His temperament would become essential for the tense situations Dr. King and his staff would often find themselves in when they traveled in the South.
On one of many trips Willie King took with them, they drove from Birmingham to Montgomery, Ala. They planned to visit a church, where clergymen and the public would be waiting to meet with Dr. King.
Willie King said the FBI advised them to cancel the trip because there had been multiple threats on Dr. King’s life.
Knowing this, Dr. King gave his staff the choice to stay behind, but no one spoke up.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God,’” she said. “We’re going ahead?”
They started on their trip, with the Rev. Walker in the driver’s seat. On the long, two-lane road, a muddy truck with a rifle rack got in front of their station wagon, forcing them to slow down. Looking out the window, Willie King said she saw “rednecks” in another truck, boxing them in. Long lines of cars followed behind them.
“I started crying,” Willie King said. “And Dr. King started laughing.”
One of the station wagon’s passengers suggested an uplifting song, and they were soon singing loudly while men in the truck beside them stared. Willie King saw two rifles in the truck ahead of them.
“Dr. King said those boys probably can’t even shoot, they probably can’t hit a rabbit,” she said. “He started making all these jokes, and these fools are about to blow us away!”
Despite the situation, Dr. King never showed any signs of fear, she said.
“He would always say to us, ‘If you don’t have something worth dying for, then there’s no point in living.’”
Willie King left the Southern Christian Leadership conference in 1966. She had been working at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Birmingham when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. A friend called to tell her the news. She turned on her TV, then packed up her car and drove straight to Atlanta.
There, she picked up where she left off, writing press releases for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She went back to her job in Birmingham shortly afterwards.
Willie King retired from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission several years ago. She spends her time volunteering at Montgomery Hills Baptist Church in Silver Spring, where kids sometimes ask if she is Dr. King’s wife.
“Absolutely not,” she responds, though she was close friends with Coretta Scott King.
Willie King said she often hears from elementary school students who study Dr. King’s speeches in class. While working with his organization, she helped distribute copies of one of his most widely known speeches, “I Have a Dream,” shortly after it was written.
She came to the District for the March on Washington, but left before Dr. King delivered the speech.
“I was so tired of typing and retyping and all of the hullabaloo going on with planning this March on Washington,” she said. “I went back home to Atlanta.”
The original copy of the “Dream” speech ended up in the trash once it was transcribed, Willie King said. Like the Birmingham letter, she never guessed — “never in a million years,” she said — that it would become iconic.
This story previously stated that Willie King left the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. She left in 1966. King was also hired as a secretary, not as an executive assistant. She was later promoted to the position of executive assistant for Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker.