RIDGELAND, Miss. — In this comfortable suburb north of Jackson, Maude Ballou sits among other residents, chatting about lunch, the weather and the daily pleasures of life in a congenial retirement home. She spends her days quietly, reading — the Bible, mostly — and catching up with family and friends.
It wasn’t always so.
In the 1950s, Ballou lived in Montgomery during a turbulent, violent time in Alabama’s capital. She worked there for a nascent civil rights organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, doing almost daily battle with fierce opponents, including the segregationist White Citizens’ Council and an intransigent political culture hellbent on keeping the city as it had been when it was the first capital of the Confederacy — and keeping blacks firmly in their place.
Ballou, now 89, was there as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first personal secretary.
“Though I was much more than that,” says Ballou, her elegant tapered fingers resting on her freckled cheek. “I booked flights, research, writing. I did it all.” This included editing versions of the “I Have a Dream” speech that King delivered at Southern churches long before the 1963 March on Washington.
The release of the movie “Selma,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, and the widespread recent protests that followed racially charged incidents involving the police and African Americans, have sparked renewed interest in the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement and its iconic leader. And few people were closer to King in those early years than Maude Ballou.
Maude and Martin — she always called him Martin, although her husband and other people knew him as Mike — were dear friends before her stint working with him in Montgomery from 1955 to 1960. It was the time of the seismic bus boycott of 1955-1956 that put the civil rights movement on the map. King, still in his 20s and completing his doctoral dissertation, went from being a Southern preacher to a civil rights leader of international renown. The basement office of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was flooded with correspondence and speaking requests. In “Stride Toward Freedom,” King’s 1958 account of the Montgomery boycott, he thanks Ballou, who “continually encouraged me to persevere in this work.”
Ballou, the middle-class daughter of an educated minister, had attended college at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where she studied business (including stenography) as well as American and Western literature. So she had the skills that King required in an assistant.
She had also worked in a factory during the war and later as program director at WRMA, Montgomery’s first black radio station, and had a strict work ethic. King “asked me to work for him on several occasions,” she says. “I did not agree until three or four times.”
Martin and Coretta King and Maude and Leonard Ballou socialized regularly, visiting one another’s homes for what Maude calls “little parties.” Leonard, a talented organist and pianist, taught music at Alabama State and helped Coretta, who had studied voice, with her singing. Maude and Martin had similar backgrounds.
“Our fathers were Baptist ministers,” Ballou says — Martin Luther King Sr. was a giant in Atlanta; H.P. Williams was a presence in Mobile. “We were close. We just bonded, I guess.”
Now using a wheelchair, this self-professed “Southern belle” with the manners to match has lived through plenty, though she is reluctant to share all that she knows. The mother of four, grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of one declines almost all interview requests. Private and reserved, Ballou is intensely loyal. Like most assistants to celebrated men, she learned to keep secrets and not tell stories out of school.
Ballou was nonetheless in the spotlight in 2011, when the King estate sued her son Howard, a Jackson television anchorman, to take possession of documents that members of his family claimed rightfully belonged to them. Two years later, the court ruled in Howard Ballou’s favor. The Ballous subsequently auctioned 100 pieces of personal memorabilia, including daily calendars, a letter opener and King letters to Ballou from his 1959 five-week sojourn in India (“The Land of Gandhi,” as he put it). The family netted $104,000, most of it going to pay legal bills, although a portion was allocated for a scholarship fund at Alabama State.
But the Ballou family kept plenty of souvenirs from that time, including a letter from Rosa Parks, who famously helped launch the bus boycott; steno pads filled with Ballou’s exquisite hand; datebooks in which she sporadically recorded the day’s events.
From Maude’s personal diary: March 13, 1956 So much work we often come back at night. This was the week of the trial [on the bus boycott]. Seemed as though mail would never stop coming nor telegrams and long distance calls for Rev. King, Jr. This really is a hectic week. We made it though. Very few letters are of adverse nature.
Another entry reads:
March 16, 1957: I saw an old white woman with a pail soliciting contributions for the maintenance of segregation. She asked one man who passed and he smiled warmly saying he had already contributed. I passed this woman several times intentionally to see the class of people who gave – I saw nobody give. The man she asked was a little better off than she, which wasn’t saying much.
Violence soon shattered Montgomery. Historian J. Mills Thornton describes the period as “a reign of terror” and “the dark night of the soul for the movement.” In January 1957, Ralph and Juanita Abernathy’s house, down the street and around the corner from the Ballou home on Tuttle Street, was bombed. The Cold War was in full throttle, and “my older sister asked our mother if the Russians were coming,” her son Leonard recalls. “She explained to us that some bad people had bombed Reverend Abernathy’s home, but that the Abernathy family was all right.”
Four days later, Montgomery Improvement Association leaders supplied the chief of the highway patrol with a “List of persons and churches most vulnerable to violent attacks.” King registered at the top. Mrs. Maude Ballou was No. 21.
“Maybe I didn’t have the sense to worry,” says Ballou, who later spent three decades as a college administrator and a middle and high school teacher in North Carolina. “I didn’t have time to worry about what might happen, or what had happened, or what would happen,” she says in the cadences of a Baptist minister. “We were very busy doing things, knowing that anything could happen, and we just kept going.”
One time a man came down from Birmingham. “He said the White Citizens’ Council had sent him down there to tell me to stop working for civil rights or they would get my children. And that’s what got me, when you think about your babies. That really shook me,” says Ballou, with considerable equanimity. “But it didn’t stop me.”
Another night, working late in the office, alone, “somebody was outside watching. They were outside there in the car. And I found out later it was the KKK. But I was not afraid, for some reason,” she says. “I was a daredevil, I guess.”
Those days were heady, but often wretched. The victorious bus boycott was followed by internecine squabbles within the association. May 1, 1957 11:00 Executive Board meeting. Explosive.
After the association stalled, and King returned to his hometown of Atlanta to helm the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ballou continued to work with him in the Georgia capital for a year and a half, even living with the Kings for a while.
Ballou did not travel with King, nor march with him later in Washington and Selma. That was not her role.
“I didn’t have time for that,” she says. “I had work and family.”
She was paid for her work; not much, but enough to cover the cost of a caregiver for her children. Her duty was at a desk, her contributions meted out in correspondence and flight reservations.
Historian David Garrow, author of the monumental King chronicle “Bearing the Cross,” says that “Maude was dealing with both King’s travel schedule and this huge amount of incoming mail” in the years after he landed on the cover of Time magazine and was perpetually overextended. “You look through the papers of the Montgomery period, and up to 85 percent of the signatures are in Maude’s hand. There’s no question that she’s running his life, that she’s the number one person he’s relying on to get the work done.” She handled correspondence from Malcom X, Thurgood Marshall, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
Ballou was not part of the bus boycott, either, though she did make a stand. She is light-skinned, enough to pass as white had she chosen, a choice that never seemed to occur to her. The Southern belle dressed exquisitely. “I wore high heels. I thought I was a fashion model.” Photos from the period, showing a lovely, perfectly coiffed woman, confirm that she was right to think that.
“I got on the bus. The bus was empty, and I sat down,” she says, referring to the front section, reserved for whites. “And the man said, ‘Come here. Is you white?’ And I looked at him, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Get back there!’ ”
Mrs. Maude Ballou of Tuttle Street would do no such thing.
“And I got off the bus and walked up the hill to my house,” she says.
The threats on King’s life increased with his fame. Ballou, a woman of considerable reserve, claims not to have worried about King, even after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, and she helped take care of the work that continued to pile up in the aftermath.
“I just had a strong belief he would overcome all this,” she says. “One evening, Martin called and said, ‘Tell Leonard not to bring you to work. I’m going to pick you up, Maude.’ He told me, ‘I dreamed last night that I died and nobody came to my funeral.’ And I told him, ‘Oh, Martin, no, no. That is not going to happen.’ He was serious. That got to me.”
In April 1968, when King was assassinated, it was the rare time that Howard Ballou recalls seeing his mother cry. She and Leonard attended the funeral. She stayed in touch with Coretta, as well as the Abernathys.
“I remember it all,” Ballou says. But much of it she is not telling, to the considerable frustration of her children, who yearn for the stories, to know more of those extraordinary times, but also for their mother to be honored and remembered, to be rendered more than a footnote, for the work she did in assisting civil rights’ greatest champion.
Among the family’s collection from that earlier time, secure in a bank vault, is an autographed $2.95 copy of King’s “Stride Toward Freedom.”
Even if Maude Ballou won’t claim some credit for helping in the early days of the movement, her dear friend and boss chose to do it for her.
In his clean, clear handwriting, King inscribed:
To my secretary Maude Ballou,
In appreciation for your genuine good will, your devotion to your work, and your willingness to sacrifice beyond the call of duty in assisting me to achieve the ideals of freedom and human dignity for our people.