King urged blacks to polls in speech 50 years ago

Bruce Smith
Associated Press

Columbia, S.C. — The 50th anniversary of a historic speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urging blacks to vote is being marked in rural South Carolina this weekend.

King gave what became known as the “March on the Ballot Boxes” speech in Kingstree in black-majority Williamsburg County on Mother’s Day, 1966. It came about nine months after the federal Voting Rights Act became law and King urged blacks not to be afraid of voting.

“Let us march on ballot boxes, until somehow we will be able to develop that day when men will have food and material necessities for their bodies, freedom and dignity for their spirits, education and culture for their minds,” King urged the audience of about 5,000 people who gathered in the rain.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and the first black congressman elected from South Carolina since Reconstruction, was present at King’s speech and will speak at Sunday’s commemoration in Kingstree.

The event also includes a video presentation of King’s original speech and the unveiling of an historical marker. Those who attended the original King speech also will be recognized.

National Park Service historian Michael Allen, who grew up in Kingstree, was 5 when he attended with his grandfather.

He said at the time black leaders in some communities in the county north of Charleston, who were worried about people’s safety, told blacks to stay away. Still thousands showed up.

Allen said King could have gone anywhere in South Carolina, but went to a black-majority county.

“His coming to a community in which the environment could be favorable to advance the cause, the voting rights cause, I think was critical,” Allen said.

“Sunday’s public event and gathering in effect validates him coming there 50 years ago,” Allen said. “The political landscape of officeholders in Williamsburg County today is one of African Americans. It is a personification of what he shared in 1966.”

Williamsburg County today has about 33,000 residents, about 65 percent of them black. The county supervisor and six members of the seven-member of county council are black.

Allen says he hopes King’s speech will now be remembered locally much as the 1965 march on Selma, Alabama, by civil rights activists is remembered nationally.