Appointed special assistant to Martin Luther King in 1963, Harry Boyte became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) first white employee. “I was impressed with Harry’s dedication to the basic questions of freedom and human dignity,” King explained. “It is wonderful to find a southern white person” who has “risen above the paternalism so many southern whites have in their relationship to Negroes” (Boyte, August 1963).
Boyte was born in North Carolina in 1911. After graduating from Elon College in North Carolina, he pursued graduate training in political science at American University. In 1942 Boyte began a 17-year career with the American Red Cross, traveling in Africa and Europe and working in Washington, D.C., before settling in the Atlanta office in 1946.
In 1959 Boyte resigned from the Red Cross to commit himself full time to civil rights. As the chairman of the Greater Atlanta Council on Human Relations, Boyte registered his dismay with Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver’s “inaccurate, unjust” and threatening comments toward King, when he warned that King would be kept under close surveillance after his move to Atlanta. Boyte defended King’s work, writing, “Not only his personal character but his public ministry have at all times been in keeping with a strict observance of the laws as well as a humane and Christian concern for the rights of all citizens of the community and state where he has resided” (Boyte and Hocking, 4 December 1959). Boyte also sent King a personal letter of welcome assuring him of his “complete support” in his “efforts to eliminate discrimination in the South” (Boyte, 18 February 1960).
In Atlanta in 1961, Boyte became Southern Director of the Unitarian Service Committee, an organization working to desegregate schools in the South. After approximately six months, Boyte left Atlanta for Charlotte, North Carolina, where he worked with Robert F. Williams. The following year he moved to Prince Edward County, Virginia, where he helped the American Friends Service Committee run schools for African American students after the local school board closed public schools rather than give in to court mandated desegregation. In 1963 King asked Boyte to join the staff of SCLC in the dual position of special assistant to the president and research and information secretary. He later became director of the Dialogue Department of SCLC, organizing community workshops, interdenominational retreats, and campus discussions to help multiracial groups work against “human misery and alienation” (SCLC, 1965). Boyte continued to run Operation Dialogue until he retired in the summer of 1966.
Boyte, Essay on Harry G. Boyte, August 1963, HCBP-NcD.
Harry Boyte, Jr., Interview by King Papers Project staff, 9 April–10 April 2007.
Boyte and Richard Hocking to Vandiver, 4 December 1959, LDRP-NN-Sc.
Boyte to King, 18 February 1960, MLKP-MBU.
SCLC, Dialogue: A Search for Reconciliation, 1965, CSKC.