Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As part of Dr. King's crusading efforts, he made appearances at historically black colleges throughout the country, including Hampton Institute, to spread his message. As a man of the cloth, his most frequent venue for reaching African Americans was that longstanding pillar of black society—churches. Twice, he ventured to this city to speak in a house of worship.
First Church of Newport News (Baptist), organized in 1864, was the earliest congregation established within the original city limits. In 1897, a new brick edifice was built at 2300 Jefferson Avenue. The towering steeple was a landmark on the city horizon for many years. Therefore, it was quite fitting that on both of King's visits to Newport News, he addressed the community at its oldest and largest black church.
Under the leadership of Dr. John Williams, First Church invited Dr. King to speak at its January 2, 1958 Emancipation Proclamation observance. His message fell on receptive ears because First Church, founded "in the era slavery, but never a spirit of enslavement," welcomed the dynamic, young minister.
On June 28, 1962, Dr. King returned to Newport News representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which he was president and chief spokesman for equal rights for black Americans. This Funds
for Freedom Drive was co-sponsored by the Virginia State Unit of the SCLC and the Peninsula Coordinating Committee.
No doubt King felt at home on this visit for the church was now the pastorate of Rev. Dr. Fred Boddie. The two men were old college chums from Shaw University, N.C. Dr. Boddie, and avid supporter of Dr. King, spent time in jail for his participation in the civil rights movement. When Dr. King spoke this time, he was confident of the support of his friends, Rev. Dr. Fred and Patricia Boddie. However, him message was received with mixed views by those who heard it. Overshadowed and burdened by America's racist policies and practices, blacks in Newport News were divided in their opinion of Dr. King and his plan for equality.
(Inscription under the image in the upper center) The tall steeple of First Church, as seen in this 1890 view, made it an easily recognizable structure in East End.
(Inscription under the image in the upper right) 1958 Emancipation Day Celebration at First Church. At the pulpit, Rev. Dr. John Francis Williams. Dr. King is seated at the far left. Shipyard Union leader Soloman M. Travis, Jr. is on the far right.