On a day when Americans remember the bold words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Carole Simpson, a longtime ABC News reporter and the keynote speaker at the World of Wellesley’s 11th annual MLK Breakfast at Sun Life Fiancial, recalled the civil rights leader’s softer words — whispers, in fact — that changed her life more than 45 years ago.
“I had only been reporting for a year,” said Simpson, who was then the first and only female broadcast journalist in her hometown Chicago, “when Dr. King held a news conference in Atlanta announcing he was bringing his non-violent crusade to Chicago — but he didn’t say why.”
It was late 1965, and the inexperienced Simpson would not have been WCFL Radio’s usual choice to cover an event as significant as King’s visit.
“I begged my news director to put me on the story,” Simpson told a crowd of about 100 gathered on the Sun Life Financial campus Monday morning. “Dr. King was a negro, I was a negro, so my news director thought that made sense.”
On the day of King’s arrival, Simpson and the rest of the press corps camped out at O’Hare International Airport, hoping to learn the purpose of the trip. But when King, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize the year before, left for an undisclosed location without speaking to reporters, all of Simpson’s colleagues hurried to a downtown hotel where King had lodged on previous visits, she said.
Simpson, trusting a hunch, broke from the pack and surveyed the unassuming motels and hotels near the airport.
“I finally got to the O’Hare Inn,” she said. “And it was something about the way the clerk told me that Dr. King was not there that I felt he was there. So I skipped past her, and I took the elevator and went floor by floor. Stopped at the second floor, looking and looking and looking for activity. Third floor, fourth floor. And I finally got to the seventh floor, and I saw all of these black men and a lot of activity at the end of one of the corridors. And I saw C.T. Vivian and Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams, people I had seen on television marching arm and arm with him for his demonstrations in the South.”
Simpson approached King’s entourage and requested an interview but was turned away, told she would have to wait, like everyone else, for King’s 10 a.m. press conference the next day.
“Well, I decided I’m not waiting for the press conference,” Simpson said. “So I went back to the bank of elevators and waited there. He would have to get past me to go anywhere.”
All night, Simpson kept her vigil, employing her overcoat as a cushion so she could sit on a concrete floor in relative comfort. Around 7 the next morning, Simpson’s patience paid off.
“All of a sudden he comes walking down the hall,” she said, “and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see this man that had done so much, and he’s such a hero of mine, and he’s walking my way. I was just, my heart just welled up, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to speak to him at all. I would just blather.
“But he comes walking toward me, and he was shorter than I thought he would be. I was taller than he was in my heels. And so he came, and he stuck out this very big hand, and he shook my hand and he said, ‘Young lady, are you the one they’ve been telling me about?’ And I said, ‘I guess so, sir, Dr. King. So exciting to meet you! I’m just thrilled!’ And he said, ‘What are you doing here? Why’d you stay here?’ I said, ‘Because Dr. King, I’m the first African-American woman broadcasting news in Chicago. And you wouldn’t believe what it would do for my career if you would tell me first why you’re here in Chicago.’
“And he laughed at me and, oh, his face, his smile. You know those people that just have it, the charisma. They just walk into a room. (Bill) Clinton has it. (Ronald) Reagan had it. But I was just so in awe of him, and so he said, ‘I admire your perseverance, young lady.’ And he said, ‘Come here.’ And he whispered in my ear. And he said, ‘I’m here to challenge the segregated housing patterns in Chicago. I’m going to make a direct challenge to Mayor [Richard J.] Daly.’ This is the most segregated northern city in America.’ And it still is.
“And so he said, ‘Now don’t tell anyone.’ And I said, ‘Don’t tell anyone?’ And the elevator door opened, and he shook my hand again, and he said, ‘You are very special. I expect great things from you.’ And for him to say that to me was, like, oh my God. And it was something I later felt I had to live up to. Dr. King was expecting great things from me.”
By 7:30 a.m., Simpson was on the air, breaking news that King was in Chicago to address an unlegislated form of segregation. She had scooped everyone in the nation’s second-largest media market.
Simpson said she caught a wink from King at the press conference later that morning, and she continued to cover his housing crusade in Chicago.
Now the Leader-in-Residence at Emerson College’s School of Communications, after a career in which she won three Emmy Awards and advocated workplace equality, Simpson said she still considers that exchange with King a personal milestone.
Simpson was introduced at the World of Wellesley breakfast by her daughter, Channel 4 medical reporter Dr. Mallika Marshall, who said her mother “carried on (King’s) fight for equality for women and minorities.”
“I think she would have made Dr. King very proud,” Marshall said.
Also at the breakfast, World of Wellesley President Dr. Phyllis Gimbel Schnitman presented the organization’s Advancing Race Relations Award to Rhonda Long Mar, who is the lead coordinator of Wellesley’s METCO Family Friends Program.