Raised by a Klu Klux Klan member in Selma, Ala., one wouldn’t have expected Fred Gibson, 84, to grow up playing with a racially-diverse set of children. Yet in his youth, he insists his group of friends included white and black boys, none of whom gave much thought to the color of one another’s skin.
“We were very close; we knew everything there was to know about each other families,” he remarked.
In the hot Alabama summers, the boys spent most of their days playing together at a local river, where they would fish, swim and swing from vines. In their younger years, their friendship was tolerated by their parents.
“Then came that magical time when the white parents and the black parents said we couldn’t play together anymore,” Gibson recalls, adding that their instructions were promptly ignored. “There was no way they could break up our bunch.”
One day, Will, a black member of the group, didn’t show up to play at the river. Assuming he was stuck at home finishing up chores, no one thought to worry.
When Will failed to show up the next day, the then nine-year-old Gibson grew concerned. Checking on his friend, he made a visit to Will’s house and found it empty. As he turned to leave, he spotted Will’s mother walking down the road.
When asked about her son, Gibson remembers how she hesitated to reply, first looking up the sky and then clearing her throat. She then delivered the tragic news: Will had been beaten to death by an intoxicated white man.
The community’s overall nonchalant attitude towards the murder of a black child left Gibson with a lifelong commitment to civil rights, and a great deal of anger.
“I developed a hatred I didn’t think was possible for a child,” he said.
Gibson didn’t make peace with humanity until he attended a retreat in 1949.
“That summer, I became a believer [in Christ],” he explained. “I became a great admirer of the young revolutionist Jesus … I fell in love with people.”
In the early 1950s, he enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. During Gibson’s first year, recent Crozer graduate Martin Luther King Jr., came to speak to the students during chapel.
“He was a very sweet-spirited, humble young man,” Gibson recalls.
Though King was pursing his doctorate at Boston University’s School of Theology, Gibson says King frequently visited his alma mater.
“He was on the Crozer campus almost as much as Boston’s, and that’s how I got to know him,” he explained.
According to Gibson, King had enjoyed a comfortable, upper middle class childhood and had thus started his schooling with a relatively naïve view of life.
“At Crozer, he was thrown into the dynamics of social revolution. … He told me that it opened a new world to him,” Gibson explained of King.
Gibson acknowledges that he was never in King’s closest circle, but says they did develop a friendship. Calling himself a member of King’s “supporting cadre,” Gibson said the two took part in a sit-in together at a Woolworth’s in Philadelphia. Though it was difficult to watch younger participants being thrown to the floor by security guards, Gibson followed King’s instructions and refrained from retaliating.
“If there was to be any violence, [King] said it had to be towards us [the protestors], not towards them,” he remarked.
In 1963, King called on his fellow Crozer graduates for support with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a now historic rally that called for equal economic and social rights for African Americans.
Gibson, then serving as a pastor in New York City, says he was eager to assist, and helped load people on trains to attend.
During the rally, which attracted an estimated quarter of a million participants, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Though King had prepared notes, Gibson said he ended up not using them.
“He basically just closed his notes and spoke from the heart,” Gibson recalled.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, Beverly Butterfield invited Gibson to speak about their friendship at the New Market Area Library, which he will do Jan. 18.
Butterfield, a library volunteer, met Gibson through her son, and says she was immediately intrigued by his experiences.
“I had heard Fred tell his stories about being [at] the seminary with Martin Luther King,” she remarks. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to hear a first hand account of what [King] was like?’ ”
Gibson is looking forward to sharing insights about his friend, who was assassinated in 1968.
“He was brilliant and he could’ve done anything, academically or politically,” remarked Gibson. “But he chose to be a servant.”
The free event will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 18 at the New Market Area Library.
Contact Katie King at (540) 574-6271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.