This is Civil Writes, vol xv! In this series, I chronicle the characteristics of data and administrative staff during the American Civil Rights Movement. This post is dedicated to the idea of the Secretary, and four women who filled that role, alongside Dr. King, in the 1960s.

In her interview with the civil rights oral history project (c 2009), Dorothy Cotton, former director of the SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program, remembers with tremendous pride the role that secretaries and administrative assistants played in the movement.

Dora E. McDonald [came from sic] Morehouse, and was a very accomplished professional secretary with deep connections to the community. (…) Dr. King wrote, Dora could be secretary to the President of the United States. I wrote in my manuscript, I hope he told her that.

After listening to this part of the interview, I was rapt with curiosity on this question. DID HE?

The more I work with nonprofit leaders at the executive rank, the more I am aware of the extreme time constraints they face, and the ways in which (faced with so many competing priorities), they deprioritize tedious tasks like data entry, praying for a competent understudy or just letting good data go to the graveyard of forgotten spreadsheets or unanswered emails. Although we live in an increasingly data-driven world, these front-line data entry associates are not treated with the utmost respect and often do not stay in their jobs for very long. Dr. King clearly thought highly of his secretaries and collectively, his team put tremendous effort into record keeping. How were they able to pull off such a feat, something that we find so vexing today?

Sure, you might wonder if the volume of information we receive now (bombarded with emails, letters, and missives on every social media and work collaboration platform) presents a data and correspondence problem an order of magnitude greater than most people faced in the 60’s. And while there may be some truth to that hypothesis, by all accounts, Dr. King and the various Executive Directors of SCLC and peer organizations were veritably swamped with letters, speaking requests, fundraising appeals, manuscripts to write/edit/release, and an ambitious travel schedule to boot. From my vantage point, they had it worse than we do when it comes to runaway inboxes! But they also had a strategy for managing information overload, and that strategy was highly skilled secretaries.

At least according to the New York Times obituary of Dr. King’s beloved secretary,

Ms. McDonald typed Dr. King’s speeches and manuscripts and kept up with his torrential correspondence. “Archivally, I know quite well,” said David Garrow, a King biographer, “an awful lot of the letters that people received around the world signed by Dr. Martin Luther King were actually signed by Dora McDonald.”

As was typical in the 60’s, Ms. McDonald not only managed Dr. King’s affairs, calendar, and correspondence, but also contributed significantly to editing, typing, and finalizing his speeches and manuscripts. He even gives her a shout out in the preface to his 1963 book, Strength to Love. Nonprofits with a large “footprint” may have executive assistants who play these types of roles, but it would be unheard of today to have positions like this for organizations the size of early, fledgling SCLC or MIA.

This train of thought got me thinking about the extent to which administrative staff were acknowledged as being pillars of organization stability and effectiveness, traits which nowadays are attributed primarily to “organizers” and not “administrators.”

In 1960, Dr. King and his family left their homebase of Montgomery, Alabama to “go big” in Atlanta where he had earned a prominent pulpit position and where his political work could reach increasingly national prominence. He gave a “goodbye and thank you” speech to his former congregation, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he generously thanked his predecessors, family and inlaws, and devoted lay leaders to the church. With notable exceptions of Coretta and Rev Abernathy, the individuals who were heaped with the most praise and recognition were the three secretaries who collectively managed his personal affairs (Mrs. Maude Ballou), matters of the church (Mrs. Lillie Hunter), and matters of the Montgomery Improvement Association (Mrs. Hazel Gregory) (the civil rights organization that preceded the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).

In closing, I’d like to mention three other people. Names, it’s always perilous to mention names. I could call all of the names here, but I do see three young ladies who have worked very closely with me over the last few years. They have worked with me in difficult periods, and they have proved their concern and loyalty. First is my personal secretary, Mrs. Maude Ballou, who has been a loyal secretary and who has worked long and difficult hours when I needed her most, and she has been a real associate and a real encouraging person in this total struggle. I’m happy to say that, for at least a period, Mr. [Leonard] Ballou has been gracious enough to release Mrs. Ballou to go to Atlanta to help us get adjusted. It’s difficult to adjust to a new secretary, and I will have to be in the process of finding a new one, but she will be there for a few months with us. And then there is Mrs. [Lillie] Hunter, who has served as the church secretary, and as the church secretary she’s had to work very closely with me. And, there again, she has been a very loyal worker, and I want to express my appreciation to her publicly. For you know, when you have to work with people like me, you have to have a lot of patience. And running all over the country and being in the midst of things all the time, you are always flying off and all that. People don’t think I fly off, but I occasionally do. If you don’t believe it, ask Mrs. Ballou and Mrs. Hunter. [laughter] And then, there is Mrs. Hazel Gregory, who is the secretary of the Montgomery Improvement Association and who also has been a very loyal worker in our association and with me. At times when Mrs. Ballou has been away on vacations and been out, she has worked with me, and she has never said, even though most of her work was to carry on work in the office of the MIA, that she was too busy to do something that I asked her to do. So, I’m grateful to these three ladies, and I’d like to ask them to stand so that everybody can see them. [applause] These are very wonderful ladies.

He follows this paragraph with a flippant reference, “I could mention my biographer, but enough has been said about him, and it has been said well.” (This made me chuckle!)

So, at least in this specific moment of time/place/context/audience, Dr. King afforded more affirmation to his secretaries than to his biographer.

Can you imagine a contemporary leader of Dr. King’s stature taking this much space to thank their secretaries now-a-days upon leaving a job for a more prestigious position elsewhere?

Now, we know that Dr. King had some serious character flaws when it came to objectifying women, so I can’t attribute this graciousness to his astute commitment to feminism. As SCLC grew, there was commensurate growth in their administrative staff (as mentioned repeatedly in annual reports). In each phase of administrative sophistication, what seems clear from my research is that secretaries were entirely embedded in the work of movement building, not siloed in a perfunctory “envelope licking” function that everyone else was “too important to do.” When I listen to these interviews and read these accounts, I hear from fully empowered women who spoke their minds, made decisions, coordinated major programmatic and administrative functions (especially with respect to the field organizer side of things), managed calendars and logistics, and were generally appreciated for what they did.

Dorothy Cotton, in the same interview referenced previously, goes into more detail on this point.

It is very interesting that in a large measure, we would sort of first go along with, you know, the paradigm of the time (…) For example, I could be and almost always was the only woman at the table in the executive staff meeting and if they needed coffee guess who they would ask to get coffee? If they needed somebody to take notes, you know, women were secretaries. And I did that until a man on the staff, Jack O’Dell, I’ll never forget, who said, Dr. King, Dorothy needs to stay at this table because we were talking about “whatever we were talking about” (…) Jack O’Dell said I needed to stay at the table. He was more attuned to the changing times than I was. But I felt I had power even though some of the men maybe didn’t recognize it or maybe saw me as, you know, just the woman at the table. I don’t know if I even felt bad. I had, I knew I had an important job. I had an important role to play. And I knew that I was smarter than some of those guys at the table. That’s not something you talk about. You just sort of know it. And somewhere along the way I developed a real confidence in who I was and let them be who they they thought they needed.

What I’m learning through all of this, well, as these ideas are unfolding, is that the SCLC, across multiple leaders and dimensions, had a very different attitude toward secretarial roles than I think we do. And I don’t want to romanticize these organizations because they certainly struggled with questions of gender, of class, of power, as we do today. But when we put this question under a microscope, and when we go looking for accounts of Who Did the Behind The Scenes Work and to what extent were they appreciated, what I see is a very different sense of pride and recognition than what we direct toward equivalent roles today.

This is why it’s so important to study movement history, right? Because we can look for invisible heroines who deserve to be named and remembered. Every woman mentioned above merits (and hopefully will eventually have) a post dedicated to her efforts! But even more than telling the story from the perspective of these individuals marginalized by the dominant historical narrative, what this research reveals is (in my opinion) a radically different and more healthy orientation toward the daily maintenance of the civil rights movement, or what I call, “Keeping This Little Light of Mine On.”

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