What if you believed deeply that you’d had the opportunity to prevent one of the darkest moments in this country’s history but failed to grab it?
Whether it haunts you wouldn’t be in doubt; the question is, how much?
The emotions are still raw for John Watkins 40 years after the death of his civil rights mentor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. History will always record April 4, 1968, as the day Dr. King was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn., but what Mr. Watkins believes could have happened 12 days earlier in Augusta brings tears to his eyes even to this day.
“I didn’t do what I should have done,” the former Augusta attorney and civil rights leader said between sobs while discussing the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s last visit to Augusta on March 23, 1968. “I regret it today.”
Mr. Watkins believes he didn’t try hard enough to convince Dr. King not to return to Memphis to continue his work with striking black sanitation workers. Because he was the driving force in arranging Dr. King’s speech at Beulah Grove Baptist Church, his hindsight about what could have been is stronger than most.
He and others who were there—attendance estimates range from 500 to several thousand—almost were denied that opportunity. Though Dr. King had made speeches in Augusta twice—the first at Tabernacle Baptist Church in 1962—this time he was not as welcome by some of Augusta’s black elite because of his increasingly controversial views.
A year earlier, in 1967, Dr. King had spoken out against America’s role in the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church, calling the United States “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.” He was also in the midst of drawing attention to the nation’s impoverished, promising to put an international spotlight on the issue with his Poor People’s Campaign in the summer of 1968.
Some black churches turned Mr. Watkins down when he asked them to play host to Dr. King, and his aggravation about it is not easily hidden.
THE VISIT was a last-minute affair. An associate of Dr. King called Mr. Watkins at his home the morning of March 20, 1968, and asked him a big favor: Could he arrange for Dr. King to speak in Augusta three days from then to help push his plan for the Poor People’s Campaign?
Mr. Watkins agreed out of his affection for Dr. King, whom he had met while at Howard University law school in the 1950s and got to know better during his visits to Augusta. But there were concerns, the main ones being whether he could pull it off in so short a time and, as he puts it, “then not get killed.”
DR. KING’S SPEECH lasted only about 10 minutes because he was exhausted from the day’s activities. In his 2000 book about Dr. King’s speech, King’s Last Visit to Augusta , Mr. Watkins wrote that Dr. King apologized for being late and asked those there to support his Poor People’s march.
He wouldn’t get a chance to lead the march. The Rev. Abernathy and other civil rights leaders carried through with Dr. King’s plans, but his death killed any momentum it had. The Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., lasted 42 days from May 14 to June 24, 1968.
Dr. King’s death also stopped him from carrying through on a plan that would have charted a new and highly controversial course for the civil rights movement, according to Mr. Watkins. In his book, he wrote that Dr. King shared his frustrations about the economic inequities blacks faced in America over dinner at a hotel after his speech. He then whispered to Mr. Watkins what he hoped to eventually do, something the former Augustan decided not to put in his book.
But after 40 years of secrecy, and initially saying he would probably take it to his grave, he revealed what it was: Dr. King was going to propose a separate state for blacks so they could eventually achieve economic parity that he believed wouldn’t happen on its own in America.
“It nearly scared me to death,” Mr. Watkins wrote of the idea.