Carrying King's Torch

As the nation paused for a moment this week to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., former New Hampshire state Rep. Harvey Keye recalls his battle to have the holiday observed in his state. For the program's Wisdom Watch series, Keye discusses meeting the late reverend and the influence he had over Keye's life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for Wisdom Watch, where we ask respected elders to guide us through today's most challenging and important issues - people who aren't just smart, but wise.

Today, we talked with Harvey Keye. He is a former New Hampshire state representative, whose early encounters with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not only changed his life, but encouraged him to want to change other people's lives for the better. He joins us from New Hampshire Public Radio.

Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HARVEY KEYE (Former New Hampshire State Representative): And thank you.

MARTIN: Now you hail from Birmingham, Alabama.

Mr. KEYE: Yes, I ran from Birmingham, Alabama.

MARTIN: I was going to ask, what are doing in New Hampshire?

Mr. KEYE: Well, let me just tell you. In Birmingham I was reared under the feet of Governor George Wallace and Police Chief Paul Connor. And as I understand it, after I left after living there 17 years, those were the worst races in this country. And we suffered tremendously, indignation, lack of self worth, animalistic treatment by the police force - just inhumane toward people who were called, at that time, colored and Negros. And those were polite terms. And for the men we will call preacher, doctor, uncle, sometimes Sambo. When they really wanted to be nasty to us, they'd call us black.

MARTIN: When the movement, when the civil rights movement came to Birmingham, do you remember? Do you remember what you thought about it at the time? And what did the adults around you say?

Mr. KEYE: Well, Michel, when I was about 14 years old, I was involved in a - I guess I was an angry young man - gang fight. And I was arrested and put in jail for assault and battery with intent to murder. That was at age 14. They put me in the adult jail.

There were some leaders in our community. It was Dr. Macklin, who was the president of the NAACP. I happened to be the nephew of an older colored man that had been beaten by the police after they tied him to a tree. He was now Dr. Macklin Shelfer(ph), but he was married to my mother's sister.

After I got out of jail with the help of Dr. Macklin, a minister, my mother and some other people in the community, I was on probation to stay with Dr. Macklin as a chauffeur and go to his church. And I was also put out of public school.

MARTIN: You met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at one point. How did you meet him?

Mr. KEYE: I have never met him one on one. But when I was in Atlanta after school in the Army, I was in grad school at Atlanta University, and I worked for the Henderson Travel Agency, which was a Negro travel agency at that time. And Dr. King and Shuttlesworth and a couple other ministers were going away. And I was the one who helped arrange their trip. That was a one time I met him.

MARTIN: What was that like? Do you remember any impressions?

Mr. KEYE: Not really, because he was just a preacher.

MARTIN: How did his work influence you, even if you weren't like tight associates? How does his work and how did the movement affect you growing up? I mean, I remember you saying you were a little bit of a hell raiser when you were a kid.

Mr. KEYE: Yes, I was.

MARTIN: So what happened?

Mr. KEYE: There's one night, my cousin and I, we were at A.G. Gaston's motel, and A.G. Gaston's motel is the only place in Birmingham that colored people could stay. So we were there, doing whatever we did. Martin Luther King and a couple of other fellows came through the courtyard. And then we're going to go up stairs and there was hole blown into the wall of the motel. And my cousin and I said let's go get those fellows with some nice language. And both of us had guns. And Martin Luther King says, hey, fellows. If you believe in nonviolence, put your weapons away and go home now.

And for some reason, that's what we did. We left. And - but that incident turned - I've never carried a gun again. I think I got rid of hate at that time. And he gave us some few other words, I can't remember now, but it was - it wasn't a sermon. It was just like this is not how you do it.

MARTIN: What do you think touch your heart?

Mr. KEYE: Him. He said - see, this is quite a time after Atlanta, maybe a year or so, and he had gone through some marches and what have you, and his name was much more recognizable. And I think him just saying that, this is not the way to do it, put those guns away and go home now, was so powerful to me. And I've tried to carry the banner of peace and nonviolence since that time.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Mr. Harvey Keye. He's a former New Hampshire state representative and civil rights activist.

As I said, you were a state legislator for the state of New Hampshire. I still want to know how you round up in New Hampshire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYE: Well, I was looking for a job in Birmingham, and I couldn't get a job except waiting tables. And I decided to put out a little pamphlet that says inside of Birmingham - what I was trying to do was really ask the people of Birmingham, which at that time had to be three or 400,000 people of color, stop going into back doors eating food out of white restaurants. And, of course, that got to be sort of big, and it affected their revenue.

Bull Connor got word of what I was doing. And there was a threat for upon life. My mother and several other people suggested that I leave town or I would be dead. I left and I went to Cleveland, Ohio, got a job and did some things there. Let's say, at that time, I'm 24, 25. This is the late '50s. And that's how I got out to New England was I sell hospital equipment into hospitals throughout New England.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. KEYE: So I moved to Nashville and New Hampshire. That's how I got to Nashville.

MARTIN: Okay. And then got involved in the community and got involved in politics. I wanted to ask you, Mr. Keye, New Hampshire is, of course, I think one of the last - if not the last state to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. And you were on the committee that sought to have the holiday recognized for years. You finally were able to achieve that. I mean, you gave a speech on the floor of the legislature which is credited by a lot of people as being, you know, part of what turned the sentiment around. Do you remember what you said?

Mr. KEYE: Yes. What I built as a platform was helping kindergarten children and senior citizens with Medicaid, Medicare. I ran, and I won by seven votes. And my hidden agenda was the Martin Luther King birthday. But I couldn't use that, in my opinion, as part of my campaign slogan, because some people would not like that, and I wouldn't get voted in.

Well, at any rate, I won the second term by a huge vote. And I got a chance to speak as a state representative. I was on the commerce committee. Governor Shaheen at that time asked me to make a speech, because she knew I was from Birmingham.

The story that I told on the floor was so different than the stories that had been told for the last 20 years. I have to give credit to those people who -NAACP people in Manchester and in Portsmouth. They'd been in the trenches for 25 years trying to get this bill passed. But they were telling the same story over and over and over again.

So I was the last speaker on the House floor to tell my story about Birmingham. And I told them that what I was taught was not to look white people in the eye. Never look at a white girl at all, period, or you could be another Emmett Till. And the fact that my uncle, who helped me raised me, was tied to a tree and beaten - I don't know what he really did, but whatever he did, I don't think he deserved that.

As it turned out, the bill passed the House that day by a huge margin. It was huge. It was one of the biggest days in my life, because I think you were exactly right that New Hampshire was one of the last of two states to vote Martin Luther King birthday as a holiday. And I was part of that.

MARTIN: Finally, Mr. Keye, what words of wisdom did you have for the next generation of activists, community folk like yourself, people who care about the communities in which they live and want to make them better in whatever way they see fit? What would you say?

Mr. KEYE: What I would suggest to the younger generation is to share and give without asking for anything in return. Practice, if you can, radical humility. Stay in tune with yourself in terms of love, harmony and silence. I mean silence by saying that you don't have to answer vigorously everything. Stay in school. Try to stay on the high side of value. And try to be as nonviolent as possible. And I think we'll have a pretty good generation.

MARTIN: All right. Harvey Keye is a former New Hampshire state representative. He joined us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord.

Mr. Keye, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KEYE: Michel, thank you so much.

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