Quintessentially Lowcountry: Penn Center staff will never forget King's visits

January 15, 2010 

Throughout the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. often turned to Penn Center on St. Helena Island to retreat from the pressures that came with his high-profile leadership in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Yet, even in the quiet of the white, wooden cabins and moss-covered oaks of the 50-acre, former school campus, King often found himself the center of attention.

"He had such a commanding voice when he spoke that everyone stopped," said Joseph McDomick, then a Penn staffer in his late-20s. "... He could be outside under the tree -- he always had a crowd around him. If he was in the dining hall, everyone rushed over to sit with him. He was an outgoing, joyful fellow. He was such a brilliant man."

Monday marks the day each year when Americans pause to acknowledge the memory of the Civil Rights leader, slain April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., mere months after his last visit to Penn Center.

But in Beaufort County -- where King traveled several times to talk strategy and find peace with the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even using Penn Center as a base when planning the 1963 March on Washington -- the legacy of the activist, reverend and old friend is remembered each day.

"(There are) those things that will always be with those of us that spent time around him," said Thomas Barnwell, a native Hilton Head Islander and former Penn staff member.

Because Barnwell's car was newer than McDomick's, he got to squire King between the nearby airport and Penn Center.

"How wonderful he was, how committed he was, how serious he was, how hard-working he was, how well he worked with everyone to really understand and accept the non-violence concept that he had in his heart and his commitment to humanity," Barnwell said.

Frieda Mitchell, executive secretary at Penn Center during that time, told the Beaufort Gazette in 2001 she most remembered King's response when she asked how he could love those who so openly hated him.

"He said to me, 'If you believe in the Creator, God created everyone in his own image,'" Mitchell said.

The often-hostile atmosphere King faced, however, forced Penn Center officials to keep King's upcoming visits secret and to maintain the security of the facility during his workshops. The Civil Rights leader was never harmed during his visits to Beaufort County.

But as happy and "blessed" as they felt to see King arrive,staff members were often even happier to see him leave Penn Center safe and sound, McDomick said.

"No one would even inform the Sheriff's Department that he was coming -- it was just that risky," McDomick said. "We didn't know where danger lied."

They did know, however, how King would have them handle any threats -- it was the message he espoused in the public eye and during private moments at Penn.

"The whole non-violence thing was something that had to be ingrained in all of us," McDomick said. "It's hard for you to stand up and somebody would spit on you, slap you and kick you or something and you don't retaliate. We were all young and energetic and wanted to try and do the right thing."

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