Dr. King’s Friend: Marion Woods Remembers MLK

For a nickel a streetcar ride once or twice a week, Marion Woods went from his home in Marietta, Georgia to Atlanta.

He went from any old kid in the neighborhood to one who was hanging out with someone in Atlanta who would become an international icon.

"He was very serious guy, class A student. He wanted to maintain that image. Smart guy," Woods said.

Woods, now of Rancho Murietta, first spent time with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1942 when he was 11 at the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta. At that time, in the segregated South, it was perhaps the only place that could plunge them into progressive politics safely.

"They had a club called the 'Hungry Club,'" 86-year-old Woods told FOX40. "And the Hungry Club was a place where white politicians would go to the YMCA in Atlanta to discuss problems and concerns which they could not discuss in other public situations. And Martin and I used to go to the Hungry Club to listen to what these white people had to say."

According to Woods, those white people listened to them, eventually incorporating their safety suggestions into the hiring of the city's first black police officers.

Woods said the satisfaction of turning ideas into action intensified for King when both were at Morehouse College. King was just 15 when he started there and eventually led a cafeteria strike on campus because students were upset about the food.

"For dinner we'd go and put the food in the plate and throw it in the garbage can. Just disrupted the entire structure of the school," Woods said.

Former Morehouse President Benjamin Mays, who later eulogized King, was out of state fundraising at the time. He rushed back and called King out during campus chapel.

"He said, 'It's a poor sailor that would desert the ship when the captain is away and I'm here to accept your apology,'" Wood explained. "Everybody booed. King almost started crying."

According to Woods, it's that experience that later led King to always try negotiation first. While the world knows about King's time spent in a Birmingham jail and the letter he penned there, Woods said his friend's first time behind bars was in Connecticut where they picked and seeded for a tobacco company.

"That's how we paid our way through Morehouse, by getting 50 cents an hour until August," Woods said.

Other young black men working the fields, Jamaicans, weren't allowed to stay in the same dorms as King and Woods.

"They kept us apart because they only paid them 25 cents an hour and didn't want them to know they were paying us more than they were paying them," Woods said.

The inequality of wage and living conditions motivated a young King.

"He went to the ownership in a restaurant and saw the owner of Cullman Tobacco Company and complained about it and they arrested him. They arrested him for disturbing the peace," Woods said.

MLK graduated early from Morehouse, in just three years, and came to belong to his cause and the country. He and Woods were in contact less and less, even though King did stay with the Woods family whenever he was in California.

Despite how King was rising and what he was risking, Woods wasn't afraid like others were that his friend would lose his life.

"No, never thought of that. I thought King was going to end up in a 20-year jail sentence," Woods said.

Instead bullets fired by assassin James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel killed King.

After going to Atlanta with his oldest daughter, to remember his friend at his funeral Woods says, "the thing that I got from the whole thing was I couldn't wait to get back to Sacramento to make sure I was living a life that would improve the human condition in this city, in this town where I live."

He did that by founding the Greater Sacramento Urban League, part of a national network dedicated to education, job training and economic independence for underserved communities.

"Until King died I hadn't thought about doing anything like that, but with his death I said, 'I gotta get going,'" Woods told FOX40. "I wasn't a revolutionary, but I was an advocate of improving the human condition and I did my part."