Politics & Government

Former Charlottean Maude Ballou was ‘an unsung hero of the civil rights movement’

In retirement, Maude Ballou lived in a quiet, north Charlotte suburb, her tidy house decorated with photos of her children and grandchildren.

But a half-century earlier she had a front-row seat at the tumultuous beginnings of the movement that would reshape America as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal secretary.

An official of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute once called her “one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement.”

Ballou died last week at 93. A memorial service was held Wednesday in Jackson, Miss.

An Alabama native, Ballou moved to Charlotte in the early 1970s for an administrative job at Johnson C. Smith University and later became a longtime Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher. That was two decades after she witnessed the birth of the civil rights movement from King’s office in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and later from his Atlanta home.

She and her husband Leonard moved to Montgomery after she graduated from college in Louisiana. In 1955, she was working at a Montgomery radio station and belonged to the Women’s Political Council, a group of black professionals pushing for equal rights. On their agenda: ending segregation on city buses.

A decade ago, Ballou told the Observer that after work one day she found herself the only rider on a bus when the driver turned to her.

Are you white? he asked.

What do you think? replied the light-skinned Ballou.

Told to sit in the rear, she marched to the door, got out, and walked home.

That December, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat and was arrested.

That prompted creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association. King was elected to lead it. He knew Ballou through her husband and went by their house to ask her to work with him.

“I told him ‘no’ because I wanted to keep the job I had,” she would recall. But King persisted.

King’s dream

Ballou organized carpools during the days of the Montgomery bus boycott, even as Klan members followed her own car. She awoke one night to the bombing of King’s home. Around that time, she would later recall, a visibly upset King picked her up for work in his blue Pontiac.

“Last night I dreamed I died and nobody came to my funeral,” he told her. “I didn’t tell Coretta. You’re the only one I’ve told.”

“No,” she replied. “That’s not going to happen.”

In 1960, King brought Ballou to Atlanta to help him open the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She stayed at the Kings’ home. It was there she drove up one night and saw two men in the front yard pouring fuel on a cross and lighting it.

Ballou managed King’s schedule and travel. She encouraged him to write a book about the boycott and transcribed his handwritten manuscript. In the preface to “Stride Toward Freedom,” he said Ballou “continually encouraged me to persevere in this work.”

She and her husband grew close to the families of King and another movement leader, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. They always tried to get together for birthdays. She was busy raising her own four children. Ballou “was literally changing diapers while helping to change a nation,” her family wrote in her obituary.

Moving to NC

A few months after joining King in Atlanta, Ballou left to be with her family in Virginia, where her husband had accepted a college teaching job. From there the family moved to North Carolina where Maude Ballou became assistant registrar at Elizabeth City State University.

She kept in touch with the Kings and joined the crowd at his funeral in 1968. In the early ’70s she moved to Charlotte.

Ballou saw King become an international figure as the leader of a movement that would change a nation. She would later describe him as a kindred spirit. They shared not only his public triumphs but private anxieties and disappointments.

Numerous historic civil rights era documents and letters bear her initials and signature on behalf of King.

Ballou was included in an Emmy-winning 2009 documentary by WBTV reporter and filmmaker Steve Crump. “Footprints of a King” traced the communities that were part of Martin Luther King’s life.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.
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