King Encounters

A Virginia commission documents the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s time in the commonwealth

When Ben Ragsdale met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sept. 26, 1963, he was a sophomore at the all-white, all-male Randolph-Macon College attending the seventh annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Virginia Union University.

As King left the stage, Ragsdale approached. “I told him who I was … and why I wanted to be involved.” King listened with interest, then asked Ragsdale a question: “Ben, sometime when I’m in town, do you think I’d be able to come out to Randolph-Macon College and speak to the student body?” 

Chagrined, Ragsdale says, “I had to tell him, ‘Dr. King, I don’t think that will work at this time.’ ” He explained that he and other students were calling for the school’s integration, but things were at a stalemate. After the conference, Ragsdale resolved to join in the SCLC’s work: “Within two weeks, I connected with Virginia Union students and we were working on voter registration in Gilpin Court.”

Ragsdale spoke in March during one of a series of roundtable events held by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, which is documenting King’s visits to Virginia for a digital archive and reflecting on his legacy 50 years after his April 4, 1968, assassination.

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