Breakfast On Martin Luther King Day With An 83-Year-Old Freedom Fighter

Willie Wilder, and 83-year-old freedom fighter told his story of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King today over breakfast at Stillman College’s Hay College Center.

On this day when the nation pauses to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, I am excited about meeting one of those freedom fighters who marched with Dr. King.

This morning here in Tuscaloosa, I had the pleasure of sitting across the breakfast table from Willie Wilder, an 83-year-old native of Alabama who participated in the March on Washington and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.    For about 20 minutes, I just listened as he told his story.

Willie Wilder
Willie Wilder

Wilder and I attended the Unity Day Breakfast, the first three special events sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization which King founded.  We were among more than 200 who gathered at the Hay College Center on the campus of  Stillman College.    A Unity Day March and Mass Rally were planned for later today.

Wilder’s mother moved him and his siblings first to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1930s. Later they moved to Philadelphia, where his mother died.   About four years ago,  Wilder moved back to Alabama, where his family still owns land.

Even though more than a dozen ministers, elected officials and government leaders addressed the breakfast crowd today,  none of them could have more impact on me than Wilder.

The Day He Skipped Work to March

Wilder recalled taking the day off of work to travel down to Washington to participate in the August 1963 March and how he was discouraged from doing so by many of his black friends.  But, his white employer was supporting his activism.  He says when he returned from Washington, his white employer asked him “how was it?”

He vividly recalls how non-violent the march was.   The peaceful way that hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall was something he’ll never forget.

For Wilder, the experience contrasts sharply with the way the police in Selma, Ala. responded to marchers who tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma.  He recall having  snakes nearby as he and thousands and others slept in fields overnight on their historic march from Selma to Montgomery. He was among those who  walked 12 miles a day and four days later reached the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.  The demonstration lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Willie Wilder was a little upset that many of the elected officials and ministers who were speaking this morning were not going to participate in today’s Unity March from Tuscaloosa’s Martin Luther King Elementary School to Tuscaloosa City Hall.   Dressed in his overhauls and a turtle neck sweater,  he came to breakfast with the goal in mind of marching today.

He’s a year older than my father, who over the years has shared countless stories of traveling through the segregated South as soldier in the army and later as a student at Hampton Institute.

Something in Common

Wilder and I didn’t just talk about the good days in terms of being a freedom fighter.  He’s also a veteran photographer.  I had my digital camera taking photos today and know he probably had a few things to tell me about what I was not doing right.

L. Douglas Wilder

But, our mutual interest in photography pales in comparison to the fact that Wilder is the cousin of former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, for whom I worked as Senate Page in one of Wilder’s last years in the Virginia State Senate.  That was some 30 years ago when I was a mere 9th grader back home in Richmond, Virginia.

What a small world!

But, what a big impact one breakfast can have.

We didn’t exchange business cards or contact information.  So I don’t know if I’ll ever see Willie Wilder again.   I just know that God orchestrated today’s encounter JUST FOR ME.

I took Willie’s picture and will always remember our breakfast for the wisdom that I gained from this freedom fighter.     As a 43-year-old, I learned some things from one 83-year-old that I will never forget.

That’s why we participate in events like those that are part of the National Holiday Observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   It’s a day ON, not a day OFF.    And, this one has been a good one.    Later this evening, they will culminate with an old-fashioned mass meeting at the site of the only Tuscaloosa church Dr. King visited when he was alive, First African Baptist Church.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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