On Nov. 10, 1961, Carver Gayton was 23 and just a few months into his first job as a teacher at Garfield High. He didn’t know five minutes that day would change his life.
The story starts with an invitation. The Rev. Samuel B. McKinney, at the time a young but influential pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District, asked whether his old college classmate would come to Seattle and speak.
Martin Luther King Jr. accepted.
“An extreme conservative right-wing element … have been quite vocal about your coming,” McKinney wrote to King on Nov. 6, 1961, two days before King was due in Seattle to give speeches throughout the city. “We have worked exceedingly hard to gain citywide support for your first visit to the Pacific Northwest, and that support is guaranteed now more than ever.”
McKinney’s letter is easily found in the online archives of The King Center. But there is no record of a second invitation McKinney extended around that time. Only a memory, preserved 57 years after King’s lone visit to Seattle and 50 years after he was murdered on the balcony of a Memphis motel.
The man who holds the memory, who talks about it often, calls it a “highlight of my life.”
His name is Carver Gayton, and he is 79 years old. His hair is white now.
On Nov. 10, 1961, he was 23 and just a few months into his first job as a teacher at Garfield High. Gayton said he was one of three black teachers at Garfield, and had never had a black teacher when he was a student there or at the University of Washington.
Ahead of King’s visit, McKinney asked Gayton: Would he like to meet King after the civil-rights leader’s talk at Garfield?
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From the start, King’s visit was controversial. McKinney had an agreement with the First Presbyterian Church to host King’s speech. Shortly before King arrived, however, the church backed out. McKinney recalled in a 1994 interview that the church cited construction work and other commitments as the reason for the cancellation. McKinney offered his own: racism.
Seattle in November 1961 was only months away from the start of the World’s Fair, but six years from Sam Smith becoming the first African American elected to the City Council and seven from the council passing the fair-housing ordinance.
Two days before King’s appearance at Garfield, a Seattle woman protested to the School Board. She objected to King’s visit on the grounds that he was a “controversial figure known to be associated with causes inimical to the United States.”
“What in the world today isn’t controversial?” one board member responded.
Carver Gayton only learned about the pushback later. In the Garfield gymnasium, he was simply enthralled by the man on the stage.
“I never heard an orator in my life that sounded like him,” Gayton said. “And that came through clearly while I was there.”
After King’s second speech — he gave two because Garfield’s gym was too small to fit the whole school — Gayton followed McKinney’s instructions. He went to the stage, behind the curtain, and there, where he had just captivated the crowd, was Martin Luther King Jr.
“He came across as such a giant in his oratory that when I met him physically, I was somewhat surprised at his relatively small stature,” Gayton said, laughing.
Gayton can’t remember what was discussed. Most likely, he said very little while McKinney did the talking. The meeting lasted all of five or 10 minutes.
“I knew it was important then,” Gayton said, “but I didn’t realize how important it was until years later.”
Gayton taught for two years at Garfield. Then he became one of the few African-American FBI agents in the country when he joined the bureau in 1963. He later worked at Boeing, served on the Seattle School Board and ran the Northwest African American Museum. He’s lived a full life.
People ask him to give speeches, and without fail he brings up that November day in 1961.
“There isn’t a time that goes by where I don’t mention it,” Gayton said.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to precise,” he said. “It’s something that’s within you.”
At the time, he had no idea the meeting with King would stick. That’s how life works: You can’t piece together the moments that change you until later.
Gayton did know that King, then 32, was special. He already had led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. But most of King’s most celebrated achievements were on the horizon: the letter from the Birmingham jail and the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.
“Who would have thought back then that he would have the kind of impact and influence?” Gayton said.
That’s a big reason Gayton still talks about the meeting. Not often do you cross paths with a giant.
The other is the invitation.
McKinney knew Gayton and his family, but to this day, Gayton sometimes asks, “Why did he ask me?” Of all the people McKinney could have picked, he picked him, a former UW football player and brand-new teacher.
The gesture and meeting with King gave Gayton confidence. In his classes at Garfield he started teaching his students about black inventors, poets and abolitionists. It energized him. He received three degrees, all from the UW, and served as the commissioner of the Department of Employment Security for Gov. Gary Locke. And it showed him the value of a mentor. He cofounded an organization more than 40 years ago aimed at mentoring young black men.
One day last week, Gayton visited McKinney at his apartment in an assisted-living home in the Central District. McKinney pointed to a picture on his bookshelf: himself and King as young men.
“I remember a lot of bad will extending his direction, but that went with the territory,” he said. “And he understood that.”
As Gayton stood to leave, he reached over and put his hand on McKinney’s.
“I was a young man when you introduced him to me, and it had a major impact on my life,” Gayton said. “And I just want to tell you again how much I appreciated that.”