Everson resident met MLK while working for civil rights in 1960s

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 20, 2014 

Everson resident, Don Elliot, was a civil rights activist in the 1960s while attending the University of Illinois. Elliot participated in civil rights marches and met Martin Luther King Jr.

DANNY MILLER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Don Elliott of Everson has indelible memories of marching for civil rights in Alabama, helping to register black voters, and meeting Martin Luther King Jr. nearly half a century ago.

The 67-year-old Realtor tells fascinating stories of what it was like to be part of what he calls "eye-opening" historic times.

Elliott has had several careers, including commercial fishing, gourmet cooking and restaurant management. He went on what he called "a 12-year road trip" with his wife, Felicity, before returning to Whatcom County to be with family in 2004.

Question: Don, what was your first exposure to people of color?

Answer: I grew up in Champagne (near the University of Illinois). My grandfather worked for the university and participated in a foreign student welcoming program. My grandparents always had someone from a foreign country at our dining table on any given Sunday. I was 3 to 7 years old, and I was brought up that people were people.

Q: When were you first exposed to segregation in the South?

A: When I was in school my grandparents would take me to Sarasota (Fla.). They would point out whites-only facilities, colored schools, and the like. When I was in high school, I would take a bus through the South and saw how very much segregated life was.

Q: How did you become involved in civil rights marches?

A: In March 1965 (while a college freshman at Illinois), I picked up a newspaper one morning. I saw all kinds of pictures and stories about the violence involved in the marches out of Selma. I was just incensed over the injustice of it all.

I called civil rights people in Illinois and quickly raised a lot of money. We sent three carloads of people to Selma (for an historic march to Montgomery, Ala.) and I went with them.

Q: What did you see in Selma?

A: Thousands of people were just pouring into Selma from all over the world. Black people in the community opened their homes to us.

When the march began, there was a ditch in the middle of the road, dividing the marchers from (local white) people on the other side. The whites were yelling, cursing, carrying Confederate flags. There was a police presence to keep them away from us.

The whites weren't happy with what was going on. I told myself, holy cow, how can those people have so much hate in them?

Q: Did you continue civil rights work?

A: I did an immediate turnaround and worked on voter registration campaigns in Eutaw (Ala.), a small town. I shook hands with Dr. King and I met Jesse Jackson. I registered voters for a couple of weeks and we lived with black folks who welcomed us. We met local student groups.

Q: Did you worry about your safety?

A: No, but you kept your eyes open for the state troopers. We didn't deal with white people.

I saw such abject poverty, people in tar-paper shacks using newspapers to keep out the wind. The chore was to get them to realize the idea that they could vote. It was almost a foreign concept to many of them. It took courage. We would escort them to register to vote.

Q: What happened when you returned to Illinois?

A: In 1966 I participated in a protest march for equal rights in Cicero and again shook hands with Dr. King. The streets were lined with cops. I was shocked by the hatred expressed by local white residents. The feeling made the hatred in Selma seem like amateur hour.

With my background in Illinois, I did not expect that at all. It was an eye-opener and broadened my perspective. When the march ended in a park, it was like, let's get out of here. It was scary.

Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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