By Harry M. Covert
It’s a warm June afternoon in 1962. At about four o’clock, I was in the vestibule of the Hampton Institute Chapel. A light breeze flowed through the windows that were raised about 12 inches.
Martin, as he was called by his colleagues that day, was waiting to speak to the Annual Hampton Institute Ministers’ Conference. About 100 clergymen from across Virginia, dressed in dignified dark suits, chatted as they listened to the organ music of the Institute’s music director, an internationally acclaimed musician.
I took advantage of the interlude and introduced myself to Martin as a reporter from the Newport News Daily Press. We shook hands, and I thought it would be time saving for me to get a quote or two from him in advance of his remarks. He was pleasant, commenting at how nice the Hampton weather was.
He said it was his first time in Hampton, Virginia, first time at the Institute (today Hampton University) near the famed Fort Monroe. Martin added that it was the fortress that imprisoned Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
Well, he knew his history, and I knew I could come up with a front page story on the Georgian’s visit to the preacher’s conference.
After some 20 minutes, the conference leader brought Martin to the platform. I remained on my front row seat. Much to my surprise, I was the only journalist in the building. I was also the lone Caucasian in the half-empty chapel. No other media figured it was an event to cover. No photographer came to record the event. In my mind, I was a bit excited – not so much about the speaker and speakers, but my first front page story, an exclusive mind you, begun with a pleasant handshake and good talk. No other news seemed to be breaking that afternoon, and I kept counting on a front page byline.
These were the days before mobile telephones, the Internet and cable. We had only three television stations in Tidewater and one radio news station. Both the morning and afternoon newspapers were owned by the same company. I was all alone today, and I would have the jump on other Tidewater, Virginia news hounds.
Anxiously, I took notes on cheap yellowed paper, trimmed from newsprint for note-taking and folded three ways so as to fit in my suit coat. At 22, I knew I was enjoying what I thought may be a booming career.
Martin walked off the platform after 45 minutes of well-received remarks, greeted pastors with handshakes and came over and thanked me for attending.
There was no entourage with him that day, no security men around and no fire-brand remarks about the impending civil rights struggle. I had a few good quotes, I thought, and raced back to the newspaper office to write the news.
I called the City Desk all ablaze. The editor didn’t fool around and exclaimed, “You have one paragraph Covert, per Mrs. Bottom’s orders.” Dorothy Rouse-Bottom was the owner and ran the show. Deflated, I appealed to him to reconsider and begged for more space.
“Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an eloquent speaker,” I pleaded. “Martin says America is changing and the South is changing too.” Pretty good story, I thought so then, and still think so today.
“I said, ‘one graph?’” And so it was. One paragraph, no byline, no front page and printed near the classified advertisements.
A year later, August 28, 1963: The March on Washington. The eloquent words of one of the most magnificent orators of perhaps this century changed the United States and the rest of the world. And he was a spellbinding Baptist preacher from Georgia who shook my hand and exchanged pleasantries on a sunny 1962 afternoon.