Lessons for life from an MLK sit-in

Rosalee Walker learned a lesson about temper from a run-in with a racist and Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted: Monday, January 15, 2001

Rosalee Walker doesn't like to be crossed. Her success story is based on the fact that she has reined in her own quick temper in order to battle more effectively against the indignation and injustice of racial prejudice.

The intersection of the longtime Juneau resident's life with that of a young man she came to call "Martin Luther" helped set her on the nonviolent path of civil rights activism.

"Where I grew up in Baltimore, when you learned to walk, you learned to fight; you had to know how to defend yourself, and it wasn't just racial," Walker said. "You were always on guard."

Walker, 71, grew up feisty and mischievous. In 1951, when she was a sophomore at Coppin State Teachers College, a segregated school in the heart of the city, she had to walk a mile and a half every day to take physical education at the "colored YMCA." The college had no cafeteria, so on their way back from phys ed, hungry students would often stop for a bite at a restaurant.

The restaurant wouldn't allow blacks to eat if there were any whites eating. Frequently the students waited outside. Tired of waiting, Walker began emptying the restaurant with stink bombs.

Next thing she knew, she was called on the carpet by Coppin's president.

With the president were the head of the Social Sciences Department and a handsome young man working on his Ph.D. That man was civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who had graduated from high school at 14.

"We were the same age," Walker said, "but I was a sophomore and he was a doctoral candidate."

"Sit-ins had been going on for a long time on college campuses and especially in the spring when the sap rises," Walker said. "Martin Luther would come into our social science classes sometimes and discuss nonviolence."

She was among the students recruited for a sit-in at Kresgee's Five and Ten, where blacks were not allowed to sit at the soda fountain counter. Walker, who had just had her hair done, was among those instructed at Sharpe Street Methodist Church on how to act at the nonviolent protest. But she had her doubts.


"I have a deep-rooted feeling that nonviolence is the best way to do things but it doesn't always work," Walker said.

The protesters, mostly college students, sat girl, boy, girl, boy, "so the boys could protect the girls.

"As I sat there, regular customers began to come in. This white man was angry and reached over me and picked up the ketchup bottle, took the top off and dumped it on my hair. Then he put it back.

"I just picked it up instinctively and hit him up side of the head."

The boys sitting on either side of Walker picked her up "My feet never touched the ground" and locked her in the bus.

"I felt bad because I had violated the rules. I was called back to the college president's office, and the professor and Martin Luther was there. There was no anger, but they really let me know what was on their mind."

As penance, Walker was assigned to volunteer at Sharpe Street Methodist, the hub of Baltimore's nonviolence movement, where she learned how to recruit other students to the cause.

Walker did post-graduate work at the University of Maryland. She moved to Juneau in 1967 and traveled Alaska as the Head Start training supervisor. She found the state to be a more friendly place than Baltimore.

"Everybody was helpful and kind to one another. I came to Juneau with not a chip, but a rock, on my shoulder. But it wore away," she said.

Walker still feisty, outspoken and controversial served three terms on the Juneau Assembly, from 1984 to 1993. Although officially retired, she volunteers with the Glory Hole, the National Senior Service Corps and the Boys & Girls Club.

While her sit-in experience was 50 years ago, it remains strong in her memory.

"Several times when Dr. King was attacked, he just stood there. One woman stabbed him. I pray over it when someone makes me real angry. I try to stay away from confrontations. That ketchup event showed me how to change."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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