The parade on Monday will again include marching bands and fire trucks, but sometimes forgotten in all that is that it honors a man with a deep connection to Beaufort.
Martin Luther King Jr. set foot — multiple times — on the same soil as those of us who live here. In fact, he was probably drawn here by the same climate — political and meteorological — that attracts us.
For King, Beaufort was an escape from the heat of Birmingham and the congestion of Atlanta.
Since his visits were an escape, King didn’t exactly announce them, especially to local law enforcement. Perhaps that’s why it remains a fact that sometimes flies under the radar.
But with President Barack Obama creating a national monument to Reconstruction in Beaufort on Thursday, maybe it’s time to bring the King history to light as well.
King first visited Penn Center with his advisers in 1964 to plan their peaceful strategies during the civil rights movement, specifically planning the meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But King also found he could relax among the oak trees and marshes of the Penn Center campus in a rustic cabin, away from the constant scrutiny of the media and anti-civil rights groups.
Pictures in an archive at Stanford University show King singing hymns at the Frissell Center and shedding his always-present suit and tie for more casual clothes. In most of the pictures, he seems relaxed, the permanent etchings of worry on his face temporarily smoothed over. He apparently even played baseball with locals and listened to the strumming and singing of folk artist Joan Baez. Imagine that for a second. Joan Baez playing guitar and Martin Luther King Jr. playing baseball in a T-shirt — an entertainer and a civil rights leader taking advantage of a rare opportunity to simply be human.
Frieda Mitchell, a former Penn Center employee and Beaufort County School Board member, told The New York Times in 2008 that she remembered asking King on one of his visits “how can you tell me to love people who treat me as if I were not human?”
King told Mitchell to love the image of God in every person, regardless of their outward actions, a response Mitchell remembered for the rest of her life.
In 1966, King gathered his staff again at Penn Center and told them, “I am still searching myself. ... I don’t have all the answers.”
Because he was assassinated in 1968, we will never know if he found those answers. We do know that Penn Center played a large role in his efforts to find a way forward.
The cottage built specifically for him there still stands as a reminder that even the world’s best leaders need time for rejuvenation — and a peaceful place to do it.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.