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Dora McDonald, Unsung Civil Rights Hero, Dies at 81

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Dora McDonald, Unsung Civil Rights Hero, Dies at 81


Dora McDonald, Unsung Civil Rights Hero, Dies at 81

Dora McDonald, Unsung Civil Rights Hero, Dies at 81

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Dora McDonald was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal assistant, and an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. She died Saturday at the age of 81.


On this Martin Luther King day weekend, we note the death of a key member of Dr. King's inner circle. Dora McDonald, his personal assistant, was known to few outside the civil rights movement, but she was an invaluable asset to the man who became the face of black America's battle for equal rights.

NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: Dora McDonald became Dr. King's personal secretary in 1960. She once said it was a 24 hour a day, seven day a week job, but there was never a time she regretted what she was doing.

Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Former United Nations Ambassador): She sort of organized his office and typed all his speeches and answered all his letters and basically managed his life.

KEYES: Former United Nations Ambassador and Congressman Andrew Young worked with King and knew McDonald very well. Young says McDonald was a total assistant, the kind that pays your bills, packs your bags and even offers discrete criticism when needed.

Mr. YOUNG: She never gave advice, but she'd always read something back to him and say, now, is this what you really mean to say? And he would usually take that as a clue. No, I can say that better than that.

KEYES: Dora McDonald was born July 16th, 1925 in Greeleyville, South Carolina. Andrew Young says McDonald reminds him in some ways of King's late wife, Coretta Scott King.

Mr. YOUNG: These were strong, rural women who took life as it came and mastered it, but never complained.

KEYES: Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says Dora McDonald was extremely loyal to Dr. King, but unassuming.

Reverend FRED SHUTTLESWORTH (Southern Christian Leadership Conference): I thought she was one of the most humble and meek people I ever met at that time.

KEYES: Shuttlesworth is saddened by news of the death of yet another civil rights pioneer.

Rev. SHUTTLESWORTH: They (unintelligible) people who broke the barriers down for (unintelligible) must be leaving I guess, pretty soon, one by one.

KEYES: McDonald never married or had children, and for a long while, she was so devastated by King's death that she was unable to watch television footage of him. They were so close, McDonald has said King told her things he didn't even tell his wife. Young says McDonald often gave King a sounding board.

Mr. YOUNG: There were very few people he could confide in. She was always there, whenever there were doubts and questions and anxieties. Quite often, you don't want to burden your with those kinds of things.

KEYES: McDonald finally recorded some of her memoirs in a new book, "Sharing the Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Movement and Me." She writes: After I got into my job and what I was doing, I never wanted to be doing anything else. Andrew Young says the enormous sacrifices of women like McDonald, young, often single and dedicated, made it possible for many civil rights organizations to work, because they managed the business and family lives of the leaders. McDonald, he says, was indispensable.

Mr. YOUNG: I can't think of the preacher's name, but he used to talk about the saints of rank and file without which the kingdom would not move, and you know, saint is a good term because she totally gave her life to this movement.

KEYES: Dora McDonald died yesterday of complications from cancer. She was 81 years old. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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