Under pressure from state officials, Alabama State College president and Dexter deacon H. Councill Trenholm announced on 26 March that he would purge the college of “disloyal faculty members” who had supported the student protests.1 Among those targeted were Lawrence D. Reddick, head of the history department, and English teachers and MIA stalwarts Mary Fair Burks and Jo Ann Robinson.2 On 31 March, Burks wrote King and requested his assistance in finding work for the fall. In this reply, King reassures Burks that he “will do all that I possibly can to assist you and your colleagues” and expresses his disapproval of Trenholm’s treatment of the faculty.
Mrs. Mary Fair Burks
1215 Tuscaloosa Street
Thank you for calling me Martin in your recent letter. It is always good to break the chain of formality. Now I can call you Frankie without any sense of guilt.
Although I have been separated from you and my other friends by many miles I have been with you every minute in concern and genuine sympathy. I know what you are going through and be assured that you have been much in my prayers. I fear that you are right in saying that President Trenholm will ease the eleven teachers out quietly at the end of the semester rather than facing it head on at this moment. The unfortunate aspect to this approach is that if you are not fired outright at this time it will lose the drama and it will be much more difficult for the individuals involved to find work. I had hoped that Dr. Trenholm would emerge from this total situation as a national hero. If he would only stand up to the Governor and the Board of Education and say that he cannot in all good conscience fire the eleven faculty members who have committed no crime or act of sedition, he would gain support over the nation that he never dreamed of. And indeed jobs would be offered to him overnight if he were fired. But apparently he doesn’t see this, and realism impels us to admit that he probably will not travel this road.3
Please know that I will do all that I possibly can to assist you and your colleagues in getting work for the Fall.4 My contacts are not too great, but at least I have some and I will be using the contacts that I have to the highest degree. I do not know exactly what fellowship or scholarship agency to suggest to you at this time. But I will be making some preliminary contacts, and as soon as I come up with something I will let you know. Your interest in teaching in Ghana sounds very interesting. I know that there are great possibilities in that area.
Give my best regards to all of my friends in Montgomery. I hope to be coming down that way in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, I will be at work on the possibilities for next school year. Let me assure you once more that you have my prayers and support at every point. I am so sorry that such a fine and devoted person as you has to suffer so much. I hope, however, that you will go on living with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that to suffer in a righteous cause is one of the most sublime experiences known to man. Since we are in the midst of the Easter Season you may find some consolation here. The darkness of Good Friday has its day for a while, but ultimately there is a third day which is a day of resurrected hopes and aspirations. Maybe we are experiencing now the darkest hour which is just before the dawn of freedom and human dignity. This is my faith.
With warm personal regards, I am
Martin L. King, Jr.
1. “Trenholm Plans Purge of ‘Disloyal’ Faculty,” Montgomery Advertiser, 27 March 1960.
2. Burks and Robinson resigned at the close of the spring semester; Reddick was fired in June (see King to Patrick Murphy Malin, Roy Wilkins, and Carl J. Megel, 16 June 1960, pp. 471-472 in this volume, and MIA, “Repercussions at Alabama State College,” Newsletter, 21 September 1960). Mary Frances Fair Burks (1914-1991), born in Montgomery, received a B.A. (1933) from Alabama State College, an M.A. (1934) from the University of Michigan, and an Ed.D. (1975) from Columbia University. Following an automobile accident in 1946, Burks was struck by a policeman and arrested on false charges. This incident led her to become the founding president of the Women’s Political Council, the organization that later initiated the Montgomery bus protest. In the late 1940s Burks became chair of the English department at Alabama State College and served in that capacity until her resignation in 1960. She then taught at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore from 1960 until 1986.
3. The day after writing this letter, King criticized Trenholm in a letter to a Kenyan student who was hoping to attend Alabama State. King apologized that Trenholm “has not stuck with his promise” to facilitate the student’s admission and added that, given the “turmoil” at Alabama State fueled by Trenholm’s decision to appease the governor rather than aid the students, he could “not advise you to come at this point” (King to Justus M. Kitonga, 6 April 1960).
4. The following fall Robinson taught at Grambling College, and Reddick began teaching at Coppin State Teachers College.
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.