When Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, it led to the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and eventually the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was so effective that it gained the attention of the nation and sparked the birth of the civil rights movement.
At the time the MIA was created, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected to lead it. Having known Maude Ballou through her husband, Leonard, King went to their house and asked Ballou to work with him.
Ballou was then working for a radio station when King asked her to be his secretary. Having studied business, American and Western literature as well as stenography at Southern University in Baton Rouge, King knew that she was the right person to be his assistant.
Ballou initially refused to work with King but the latter persisted. “I did not agree until three or four times,” she said.
From 1955 to 1960, Ballou worked with King as his personal secretary when he led the MIA and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
“I booked flights, research, writing. I did it all,” she said.
And this was during the early years of the civil rights movement, a stormy moment that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott which resulted in the desegregation of public buses in the South.
Records say Ballou organized carpools during the bus boycott, even while Klan members followed her own car. She further urged King to write a book about the boycott and transcribed his handwritten manuscript. In the preface to the book “Stride Toward Freedom,” King said Ballou “continually encouraged me to persevere in this work.”
Ballou also edited versions of the “I Have a Dream” speech that King delivered at Southern churches long before the 1963 March on Washington. Essentially, Ballou responded on King’s behalf to his correspondence, from Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, to Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, according to the Washington Post.
When King moved to Atlanta in 1960, she accompanied him and even stayed with the King family while assisting him in establishing his office at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters there.
“We were close,” Ballou later said of her relationship with the civil rights leader. “We just bonded, I guess.”
Interestingly, the fathers of Ballou and King were both Baptist ministers. And Ballou and her husband Leonard would also become good friends of the King family. Both families visited each other often, and Leonard, who was then a music instructor at Alabama, helped King’s wife Coretta with her singing.
Ballou and her husband also grew close to the family of another movement leader, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, whose house was bombed in January 1957 during racial violence in the South’s bus integration movement.
And it was during this period that things got tough for Ballou, King and civil rights leaders. Four days after Abernathy’s home was destroyed, leaders of the MIA supplied law enforcement agencies with a “list of persons and churches most vulnerable to violent attacks.” King was at the top of the list while Ballou was at No. 21. But these did not stop her from doing her job.
“Maybe I didn’t have the sense to worry,” Ballou later said. “I didn’t have time to worry about what might happen, or what had happened, or what would happen.”
“We were very busy doing things, knowing that anything could happen, and we just kept going.”
On one occasion, a man came down from Birmingham. “He said the White Citizens’ Council had sent him down there to tell me to stop working for civil rights or they would get my children. And that’s what got me, when you think about your babies. That really shook me…but it didn’t stop me.”
And while working late alone one night in the office, Ballou realized that someone “was outside watching. They were outside there in the car. And I found out later it was the KKK. But I was not afraid, for some reason,” she said. “I was a daredevil, I guess.”
Even when King was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, and his home was bombed, Ballou still went on with her work without any fears.
“I just had a strong belief he would overcome all this,” she said. “One evening, Martin [King] called and said, ‘Tell Leonard not to bring you to work. I’m going to pick you up, Maude.’ He told me, ‘I dreamed last night that I died and nobody came to my funeral.’ And I told him, ‘Oh, Martin, no, no. That is not going to happen.’ He was serious. That got to me.”
In April 1968, King was assassinated, becoming one of the most painful moments for Ballou as she and Leonard joined the crowd that made it to the funeral.
And though Ballou did not march with King in Washington and Selma, her years of work with King, including handling correspondence, flight reservations, among others, cannot be overestimated.
Ballou “was dealing with both King’s travel schedule and this huge amount of incoming mail,” historian David Garrow was quoted by the Washington Post. “You look through the papers of the Montgomery period, and up to 85 percent of the signatures are in Maude’s hand. There’s no question that she’s running his life, that she’s the number one person he’s relying on to get the work done,” he said.
Ballou, who later spent three decades as a college administrator and a middle and high school teacher in North Carolina, passed away in 2019 at the age of 93. The mother of four, grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of one lived a private life and hardly granted interviews.
In 2011, however, she made headlines when King’s estate sued her son, Howard Ballou, in a move to take possession of some documents of King. Ballou had saved some personal notes and papers of the civil rights leader, including a typed page from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which had been sent to her weeks before his assassination.
King’s family argued in court that those documents rightfully belonged to them but after two years, the court ruled in favor of Ballou’s son, Howard. The Ballou family later auctioned some of the documents of King, including a handwritten letter he sent to Ballou while touring India in 1959 and a page from his “I Have a Dream” speech. The family said a portion of the proceeds will be used to establish an education fund at Alabama State University.
But the Ballou family still has some keepsakes, including a copy of King’s book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” with a clear handwritten note of King on the inner cover: “To my secretary Maude Ballou.”
“In appreciation for your good will, your devotion to your work, and your willingness to sacrifice beyond the call of duty in assisting me to achieve the ideals of freedom and human dignity for our people, (signed) Martin.”