He knew the dreamer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 16, 2010

To some people, Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary, a beacon of hope and a landmark figure in American history. But to Andalusia resident Elmo Lewis, King was simply a nice guy who once gave him a job.

“It’s funny, because even now, I don’t have any pictures with him or (his wife) Coretta,” Lewis said. “Had I known what he’d become, I probably would have gotten all kinds of photographs and autographs.”

Lewis attended high school in Greenville and then decided to attend college at Alabama State University in Montgomery, where he studied music. One of his professors at ASU asked Lewis if he’d be interested in helping do odd jobs for one of the professor’s friends, a preacher at the local Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

“I just did whatever needed to be done around (King’s) house,” said Lewis, who moved to Andalusia after college and eventually became choral director at Woodson High School. “Whenever I wasn’t in class, I was doing things like helping Mrs. King plant flowers or clean the blinds on the windows of their house. I could never quite get the blinds as clean as she wanted them.”

Lewis said King was a “down-to-earth, family man” who had an amazing memory.

“Whenever he was in the pulpit preaching, I never saw him look down at his manuscript,” Lewis said. “Everything came from the memory and he was a powerful preacher. He was just an ordinary person, though; he’d be like, ‘Hey Lewis, let’s have a hamburger or hot dog,’ all the time.

“He was just a common man who wanted to help people out.”

King was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1954 to 1959, which coincided with Lewis’ time studying at ASU. In fact, Lewis was working on a project at the university on the night that King’s house was bombed by pro-segregationists.

“I was working on an anatomy project at the university and when the first bomb hit Rev. (Ralph David) Abernathy’s house, I could hear the windows of the classroom building shake,” Lewis said. “Then, the second bomb hit Dr. King’s house and I rushed over there. We were surveying the damage, and some of the younger black men were upset and wanted to fight. But even back then, Dr. King said, ‘No, you can’t fight violence with violence’ and calmed everyone down.”

Lewis said he was aware of King’s involvement in the civil rights struggle, but he did not decide to participate in any sit-ins or similar events.

“The thing about the sit-ins was that if you participated, you had to take whatever reaction you got,” he said. “If you got slapped, or spit on, you just had to sit there and take it. I didn’t think I’d be able to do that, so I never participated.”

He also touched on several times he felt the sting of segregation, once in Montgomery and then later again in Andalusia.

“I was walking along Dexter Avenue one day and I was in the middle of crossing the road when the signal changed to the blinking ‘Don’t Walk,’” Lewis said. “Well, I continued through and the next thing I knew I was being stopped by a policeman, who gave me a ticket for walking through a ‘Don’t Walk’ sign. I remember thinking, ‘Was I just supposed to stand there and get hit?’

“And then, when I was in Andalusia later, I got some friends together and we wanted to go to the drive-in. When we got there, the teenaged white boy told us, ‘There’s no coloreds allowed here.’ Back in Montgomery, they had drive-ins, but they had special sections where the black folks could watch; here in Andalusia, they didn’t even have that — it was just, no blacks allowed.”

When Lewis finished his studies at ASU, he moved to Andalusia and began working at Covington County Training School before moving to Woodson. He also served as a part-time music teacher at the black elementary school, which is now Andalusia Head-Start. It was there when he first heard the news that King had been assassinated.

“I remember we were listening to it on the radio,” he said. “I remember the radio guy said it something like, ‘Dr. King has been shot. He was up in Tennessee, stirrin’ up trouble.’ We were all so sad, and I know I shed some tears for him. It was heartbreaking news.”

Of course, King’s dreams far outlived his death, and school integration and the end of segregation eventually came to the South.

“We never had any riots here (in Andalusia) or anything like that when integration came,” he said. “I don’t remember any protests. It was a peaceful change, for the most part.”

Although Lewis no longer teaches music, he is still involved with the youth department at First Baptist Church on Whatley Street, where he also is a deacon.

Lewis retired about 12 years ago and is married to the former Hazel Burnette of Dozier. They have been married for 48 years and have two sons, Keith Anthony Lewis, 44, and Chris Lorenzo Lewis, 29. They also have one granddaughter, 9-month-old Nyla.