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MLK play debuting in Dallas, salute to civil rights leader
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DALLAS (AP) — Willie Pearl Mackey knew how to decipher the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s writing. She was used to his sloppy cursive and large vocabulary.

But his notes — smuggled from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail on napkins, toilet paper, newspapers and a greasy paper bag — were nearly impossible to read.

The Dallas Morning News ( ) reports the young secretary scattered the smudged scraps across her desk. She worked with King's chief of staff, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, to turn the notes into a cohesive reply to white clergymen who called King's civil rights demonstrations "unwise and untimely" in a full-page newspaper ad.

King, alone in a jail cell in April 1963, needed Mackey and Walker's help.

"It was so difficult," Mackey recalled last week from her home in Silver Spring, Md. "You're piecing together toilet paper. You're piecing together newspaper edges. I didn't know what went first."

Attorney Clarence Jones visited the jail and stuffed scraps of King's reply in his shirt and pants. Mackey tried to put the pieces in order and typed drafts for Walker to revise. Attorneys smuggled the drafts back for King's review.

Mackey and Walker worked day and night on King's letter, not realizing it would become one of his storied works.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is at the center of a play, "The 67th Book of the Bible," which was to debut Monday night at Dallas City Performance Hall. Mackey, 73, planned to watch from the audience. Walker, 87, of Chester, Va., was sending his daughter in his place.

The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture commissioned the play for the 10th anniversary of a symposium that honors King.

Albert Black, a Dallas Institute board member, suggested a play about the letter. Of all of King's letters, speeches and photographs, Black said he is moved most by a photo of King during his eight days in jail.

"Nothing titillates my consciousness greater than the photo that depicts him gathering his thoughts, sitting on a cot, behind bars, in the dark, in jail in Birmingham," Black said. "I am always moved. I'm always provoked to do something more for the civil rights of all Americans and of people abroad."

Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton researched the letter for months. When he found a photo of Mackey and Walker and read about their feverish work, he had his story.

"I just immediately thought to myself 'There's a play in there,'" he said.

Norton, an alumnus of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, read academic papers, watched videos and spoke to Mackey and Walker. The play has three characters: Mackey, Walker and A.G. Gaston, a wealthy African-American businessman from Birmingham, who died in 1996.

The title comes from an activist's suggestion years ago to get the letter recognized as the 67th book of the Bible. Norton said the title fit King's intent for the letter. He wanted the support of prominent white clergy who did not understand the ferocity and urgency of his fight.

"The letter was really to that part of America," he said. "It was straight to the unconverted."

Norton left out King himself.

"As opposed to seeing someone on the stage, we feel him inside us," he said. "We feel him through the entire play. He's not on stage physically, but we feel his spirit on stage."

In the 1960s, Mackey and Walker traveled the South with King, stopping at churches and schools for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and organizing demonstrations.

On the road to Montgomery, Mackey said, white men in pickups with gun racks surrounded their station wagon. She cried while others in the car sang freedom songs.

In the spring of 1963, they traveled to Birmingham, one of the most racially divided cities in the country. Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner, had a reputation for allowing the use of harsh tactics — pipes, fire hoses and attack dogs — against blacks.

"When I kissed my wife and children goodbye, I really felt it might be the last time," Walker recalled last week.

Morale was low after King's efforts had failed in Albany, Ga., said Jonathan Rieder, a sociology professor who wrote "Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation."

When King arrived in Birmingham, even black clergy questioned whether he pushed too hard and fast, Rieder said.

King and his inner circle knew they had to change the tone. They talked for hours about whether to defy an injuction barring a demonstration. King decided to march.

"Their view was that if we could crack Birmingham, the wall of segregation would come down," Rieder said. "When they strode out the door and began marching, they knew they were courting arrest for breaking the injunction."

King was arrested on Good Friday. In jail, he read a newspaper ad from prominent Alabama clergy who described him as an outsider causing trouble.

Mackey said the statement, coming from men of God, disturbed King. She and Walker soon began working in the Birmingham office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to transcribe his reply.

Walker called the letter "the clearest statement of Dr. King."

"He had plenty of time to reflect and think about what his legacy was about and the sacrifices he made," Walker said. "Birmingham was such a watershed of the nonviolent movement in America."

After the letter was finished, Mackey used a mimeograph machine to print copies. She walked to a Birmingham post office to mail them to the men who had signed the ad.

Over the decades, scholars and activists translated the letter into Spanish, Arabic and Farsi. It was used by dissidents in Poland, anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa and liberation theologists in South America, Rieder said.

Mackey said she looks forward to watching it come to life on stage. "If one person decides they're not going to be violent after seeing that play, I'm happy," she said.

Mackey, who grew up in Vidalia, Ga., knew little of King before she took a job with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

She had quit two jobs because of racism. She left a lunch counter job on a college campus when students came in wearing blackface. She quit a food services job at a hospital when a black co-worker had a heart attack and no doctors or nurses would touch him. He waited for an hour on the floor of a loading dock for an ambulance to a public hospital.

"I wasn't trying to be a civil rights person or a protester," Mackey said. "I wanted my job, but I didn't want to work under those conditions."

She was 21 when she began working with King and his chief of staff, Walker. She said Walker was strict and she was terrified of him. But transcribing the letter in Birmingham was her greatest challenge.

"Dr. King inspired you to want to work hard, but that was the most difficult task I've ever had in my working career," she said.

Except for a brief period, Mackey worked at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference until 1966.

She married, had a daughter and spent the latter part of her career at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws.

Today, Mackey has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her granddaughter once asked, "Is it true that you couldn't drink from the same water fountain?"

She shares her story for Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She talks about youth violence, the prevalance of drugs and guns, and the lack of educational opportunities. "I don't think he (King) would be fooled that just because we have a black president that the ills of society have been cured," she said.

Her final task for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came after she no longer worked there. A former colleague called her on April 4, 1968, and told her to sit down and turn on the news. King, 39, had been assassinated.

Mackey returned to Atlanta. She arranged car services for funeralgoers. She made hotel reservations for dignitaries. There was no time for grief or rest. She didn't attend King's funeral, fearing Walker would be upset if she took a break.

"Again, my mindset was 'We've got a job to do. We had a task to do. I've got to focus,'" she said.

She had feared for King's safety and had been prepared for his death. He had said many times that he would not have the gift of longevity.

Once, in 1963, as he watched his kids swim in a community pool, he said to Mackey, "My, I want to watch my children grow up."

He told her it wasn't to be. "He said, 'I have to do God's will.'"