Martin Luther King Jr. laid a troubled head to rest on sleepy St. Helena Island in 1967.
It was during his final Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat at the Penn Center.
By then, he was the figurehead for America’s red-hot civil rights movement, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, an “I have a dream” icon — and a worried man, loudly rebuffed beneath our towering pines by his own lieutenants about what to do next.
It was right after Thanksgiving, and King had only four months to live.
But on this night, he could rest in a safe and secluded corner of South Carolina in a simple wooden cottage named for Hastings Gantt.
The link between these two men who never knew each other — one a giant, the other an all-but-forgotten former slave — was cemented Thursday when President Barack Obama signed a proclamation establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County.
Gantt was a hero of that era, an example of what could come of freedom as he bought land, raised cotton, made money, bought more land, was repeatedly elected to the state House of Representatives, and became a philanthropist, giving 50 acres to the Penn School so it could grow from its meager beginnings in 1862 as one of America’s first schools for freedmen.
Those freedoms began in Beaufort County, as the president notes. And they lasted longer and left more remnants of its grand experiment in the sandy, windswept soil by the sea.
The president’s proclamation says, “Ultimately, the unmet promises of Reconstruction led to the modern civil rights movement a century later.”
And Martin Luther King Jr. stepped into South Carolina history at Gantt Cottage.
King visited St. Helena’s Frogmore community five times between 1964 and 1967.
By that time, the school had become the Penn Community Center. Under the direction of the late Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff, Quakers bent toward peace, it was a place of safety, a place of refuge, for black and white progressives fighting institutionalized Jim Crow racism at great personal risk.
King came with what we see now as a who’s who of the civil rights movement, including Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez and Hosea Williams.
The SCLC was just one of many groups to use the quiet campus of older buildings to plot radical strategies. At the time, it was one of the few places blacks and whites could meet or spend the night together.
CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Southern Regional Council, the South Carolina Council on Human Relations, the World Peace Foundation, the NAACP, and the American Friends Committee were among those to come.
Septima Clark ran citizenship schools at Penn. It’s a remarkable chapter of American history detailed best in the 2014 book from the University of Georgia Press, “Penn Center: A History Preserved” by Orville Vernon Burton with Wilbur Cross.
“We were called ‘communists’ because we wanted to see things change,” Joseph McDomick Jr. told me last week. The 78-year-old retired St. Helena Island magistrate was on the Penn staff at the time, and he well remembers the visits by King.
“It was a hush-hush kind of thing,” he said. “We certainly didn’t want anything to happen to him while he was here. When he would leave, we could kind of exhale.”
It offered a time of relaxation.
“When you saw a big crowd, you knew that’s where Dr. King was,” McDomick said. “He did kid and joke like anyone else.”
But inside, King was strictly business.
What did he say?
Between the sweet music of Joan Baez, and the arm-crossing-arm swaying to “We Shall Overcome,” were lots of arguments.
Detailed accounts of two Penn retreats in Taylor Branch’s book, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68,” make it clear that the South Carolina retreats could be raucous.
King let his lieutenants battle it out, saying it was natural for a group of outliers.
But in the black power and white power backlash, King stood fast in his belief in non-violence.
“Violence may murder the liar, but it doesn’t murder the lie,” King said at Penn. “It doesn’t establish truth ... Violence may go to the point of murdering the hater, but it doesn’t murder hate. It may increase hate.”
King also stood by his opposition to the Vietnam War, though some of his staff thought that was an unecessary side trail for the movement.
“All that I have said boils down to the conclusion that man’s survival is dependent upon man’s ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war,” he said.
“At Penn Center, he called them ‘the inseparable triplets,’ ” Branch writes.
And he prevailed against strong resistance to his Poor People’s Campaign to have the poor camp out in Washington so the powerful could actually see them.
King warned that the road ahead would be much harder.
“It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights ... when you deal with human rights, you are not dealing with something clearly defined in the Constitution,” Burton quotes King as saying at Penn in May 1967.
“They are rights that are clearly defined by the mandates of humanitarian concern ... We are talking about a good, solid, well-paying job. We are talking about a good, sound, sanitary house. We are talking not merely about desegregated education, but we are talking about quality education.”
King may not have known it, but in this dark South Carolina hideaway that now has the attention of the nation, he was channeling the hopes and dreams of Hastings Gantt.