Anderson family recalls Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits to Richmond

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Anderson family recall Martin Luther King Jr.'s visits to Richmond
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with Rev. Booker T. Anderson sitting next to him, with ministers surrounding them at Easter Hill United Methodist Church in Richmond in 1961. (All photos courtesy of the Anderson family.)

By Kathy Chouteau

During the March on Washington in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream Speech” calling for an end to racism, a three-year-old Richmond boy and his infant brother were in the crowd with their parents. The family—Rev. Booker T. and Irma Anderson, and their sons Ahmad and Wilbert—weren’t just everyday participants. They were closely acquainted with Dr. King, and in fact, Rev. Anderson had helped him carve the path for that historic march at a meeting in Richmond.

A few years earlier in Richmond, Rev. Anderson helped Dr. King sow the seeds for Selma too—the 1965 march when Dr. King led nonviolent demonstrators from Selma, AL to the steps of the capital in Montgomery over several days in support of voting rights. According to Mrs. Anderson, who once served as mayor of Richmond, “when he had his Pettus Bridge march, Martin called Booker and said ‘I need you to come down.’” Rev. Anderson obliged, and coordinated ministers to come with him. For her part, Mrs. Anderson declined the invitation to the Selma march because of caring for her young children.

According to Rev. Anderson’s son, Ahmad, the 1963 march on Birmingham against racial segregation—for which Dr. King was arrested—was part of their earlier, greater overall discussion with his father as well. And it all happened during one of Dr. King’s two visits to Richmond to meet with Rev. Anderson.

Dr. King and the late Rev. Anderson first befriended each other when they were classmates at Boston University’s School of Theology in the mid-1950s. After graduation, the two parted ways—Dr. King returning to Georgia and Rev. Anderson going back to his native San Francisco—but they remained close friends. Eventually, Rev. Anderson migrated to Richmond to become the pastor at Easter Hill United Methodist Church.

Rev. Booker T. Anderson (l), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy (r) outside of Easter Hill United Methodist Church in Richmond.

In 1961, Dr. King came to Richmond to meet with Rev. Anderson in an effort to assemble western ministers around the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. During that visit, the Bay Area meeting for the Western Region of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—an organization Dr. King founded to coordinate Civil Rights initiatives across the South—convened at Easter Hill United Methodist Church. Also at that time, Rev. Anderson was appointed by Dr. King to serve as the SCLC’s public relations director for the Western Region.

“It was mobilizing the ministers to get the big picture and Booker was the one who coordinated Northern California,” said Mrs. Anderson about her husband’s related work at the time. According to Mrs. Anderson, the two also spent time strategizing about “what was going to take place in the next five years: the March on Washington and the Selma march,” as well as the Birmingham march, per Ahmad Anderson.

“I think the challenge was always about educating the community, letting them know that they had a way, letting them know that their vote counted,” said Mrs. Anderson about some of the Black leaders’ outreach at that time. “And then also, education and economics played something, you know, provided that foundation as well. Okay, so here we are today, and, unfortunately, singing the same song.”

Dr. King returned to Richmond in 1968 and met with Rev. Anderson once again, also taking time to visit the Anderson’s then-family home on 1131 South 55th Street along with Jessie Jackson and Ralph Abernathy.

It would be the last time the Anderson family saw Dr. King, only one month before his assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, TN.

Left photo:Ahmad and Wilbert Anderson (l to r). Right photo: Rev. Booker T. Anderson and Irma Anderson.

In the wake of their friend’s tragic murder, the Andersons continued to blaze their own trails. Reverend and Mrs. Anderson went on to become the first husband and wife to ever serve as mayors of Richmond and city councilmembers—with Rev. Anderson starting his mayoral term in 1969, and later serving a rotating term from 1974 to 1975, and Mrs. Anderson serving as mayor from 2001 to 2007. In her role as mayor of Richmond, Mrs. Anderson was the first Black female mayor elected to serve in the state of California for cities of 100,000 people or more.

Rev. Anderson passed away in 1982, but his legacy in Richmond lives on in the most apropos of ways. Locals will recall the city’s Booker T. Anderson Community Center and Park on South 47th Street being named in his honor—perhaps a place where, today, others can convene to discuss how to bring about future, positive societal change.

“My loving parents exemplified the city of Richmond’s motto of pride and purpose. Everything they did was to enhance Richmond spiritually, politically, economically, [for] social justice change, and [for] a healthy environment for all,” stated Ahmad Anderson in a Black History Month-themed post on social media.

“The needs of your community are no different than the needs of our people…It’s the mantra in which we live by,” Ahmad told the Standard about his family. “Inspirations come and go, but that mantra is here forever. We need to embrace one another with peace and humility. And more importantly, with respect.”