James E. Orange; Civil Rights Leader Was a Top Aide to King

The Rev. James E. Orange, right, and Obang Metho pray last year at Martin Luther King Jr.'s tomb in Atlanta.
The Rev. James E. Orange, right, and Obang Metho pray last year at Martin Luther King Jr.'s tomb in Atlanta. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

The Rev. James E. Orange, who rose from foot soldier to leader in the civil rights movement and whose 1965 jailing set in motion events that ultimately led to the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama, died Feb. 16 at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta. He was 65.

Rev. Orange, who later became an organizer with the AFL-CIO and fought apartheid in South Africa, had gallbladder surgery last week, but the cause of his death is unknown, his daughter Jamida Orange said Sunday.

Rev. Orange, an amiable giant of a man at over six feet and 300 pounds, was one of the first full-time field organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was hired by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to mobilize young people for the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He became a top aide to King and was a student of his philosophy of nonviolence. He also organized the annual observance of the King holiday in Atlanta.

"You are not going to find anyone more committed to the legacy of Dr. King," Rev. Orange's daughter said. "He followed Dr. King's philosophy to a T."

Rev. Orange was standing below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and had just spoken to the civil rights leader before his assassination April 4, 1968.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., he was the third of seven children. After high school, he was working as a chef while black residents were pushing for the right to vote and for an end to segregation in his home town.

He joined the civil rights movement in 1962, largely by accident.

"I was a year out of high school," he said in a 2000 interview with People's Weekly World. "I had met a beautiful young woman who sang in the choir at the Monday night Mass meetings in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. We were to meet afterwards and go have a soda and talk."

Entering the crowded church, he walked up front, sat in one of the only two empty pews and listened intently as the Rev. Ralph Abernathy spoke. What he did not realize until later was that by sitting in the front row, he was volunteering along with other high school and college students to picket a local store.

A few minutes later, he and the others gathered in the church basement. "Although I didn't know it yet," he recalled, "the trip down those stairs changed my life forever."

Rev. Orange -- perhaps because of his size, he once said -- was made a student leader. The next morning, he and several other picketers were arrested at the store.

Scores of arrests followed as Rev. Orange helped organize nonviolent marches during some of the most volatile days of the civil rights movement.

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