Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Dora McDonald was Martin Luther King’s primary personal secretary, trusted confidante, and close family friend from 1960 until his death in 1968. In the preface to King’s 1963 book, Strength to Love, King thanked McDonald for her “encouraging words” and her efficiency in transferring his handwritten drafts to a typed manuscript. Within King’s inner circle, McDonald was an unsung hero of the African American freedom struggle who kept King’s life organized and was “his alter ego” (Percy, “King’s Secretary Recalls”).
McDonald was born on 16 July 1925, in Greeleyville, South Carolina, on her family’s farm. The Great Depression forced her father to sell the farm but, despite economic hardships, McDonald was able to attend South Carolina State College (SCSC) in Orangeburg. It was in her junior year at SCSC that McDonald met Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, who spoke on Easter Sunday at the campus. Mays asked McDonald to work as his secretary after graduation, a position she assumed in June 1947. It was as Mays’ secretary that she first met both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Martin Luther King, Sr. After leaving Morehouse, she worked at Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association in Atlanta from 1956 to 1960.
After King moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia, in February 1960, the civil rights leader was in need of a good secretary. McDonald came highly recommended by Mays. McDonald recalled that initially she did not have strong personal views about the movement but her opinion soon changed. “After I got into my job, and what I was doing, what we were doing, and what the movement meant, I never wanted to be doing something else. I was a part of something momentous” (Percy). She worked with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1960 to 1968, answering his correspondence, fielding his telephone calls, typing his speeches and manuscripts, and keeping his calendar in order. Having come to rely on McDonald, King often asked her to travel with him.
Over the years, McDonald and King developed a lasting friendship. “He would call me late at night, and I knew he would call me because he couldn’t sleep. He could talk to me about anything, possibly things he wouldn’t even burden Coretta with.... When he was hurting, I was hurting” (Percy). As the friendship developed, King entrusted McDonald to care for his wife and children in the event of an emergency.
McDonald’s life was forever changed by King’s assassination on 4 April 1968. She left SCLC in 1969, because she “didn’t want to be anyone else’s secretary at SCLC” (Percy). From 1972 to 1977 she worked in Andrew Young’s congressional office, then at IBM until her retirement in 1992. McDonald died of complications from cancer in Atlanta on 13 January 2007, but not before she wrote her memoir, Secretary to a King.
King, Strength to Love, 1963.
McDonald, Secretary to a King, 2013.
Dudley Percy, “King’s Secretary Recalls Her ‘Very Caring’ Boss,” Atlanta Constitution, 28 February 1989.