Maude Ballou, who served as the personal secretary for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., recalls the events from the time King led the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 in Ridgeland, Miss. Ballou is planning to sell documents and other items related to the civil rights icon through an auction house in New York on Oct. 17. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Maude Ballou, who served as the personal secretary for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died August 26, 2019, at age 93. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Humble, quiet, unassuming: That’s how people who knew her described Maude Ballou, a retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher who died August 26 near Jackson, Mississippi, at age 93.

For those who knew her best, Ballou was so much more: From 1955 to 1960, she worked as the first personal secretary to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

She was there when King famously led the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-’56. She was there when he left Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and returned to Atlanta, where his status as the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader was further burnished. And in between those years, she was a behind-the-scenes witness to some of our nation’s most monumental events of the 20th Century.

Few who knew her casually knew of Ms. Ballou’s professional association with King. She lived, it seems, by a code of discretion, rarely granting interviews and rarely discussing those history-making years.

For more than two decades, Ms. Ballou worshiped at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church-West, where the Rev. Ricky A. Woods, the church’s senior minister, described her as “your typical ‘old church lady,’ someone who came to the missionary meetings, the senior Sunday school, and supported the church and didn’t talk much about herself.”

Ballou had been a First Baptist-West member for years before Woods learned of the history-making work she had done, and only then after Ballou was spotted in the pews one Sunday morning by WBTV reporter and filmmaker Steve Crump, who later informed Woods of her legacy.

“I had been to visit her and talked with her on several occasions,” Woods recall. “It never came up.”

Crump later included Ballou in an Emmy-winning documentary, “Footprints of a King,” which traced the people, events and places that shaped the civil rights leader’s life.

On Tuesday, Woods flew to Jackson to preach Ballou’s eulogy. She had lived there in recent years to be near her son, Howard Ballou, a television reporter at WLBT in Jackson.

Front-row seat to history

Maude Lerita Williams Ballou was born Sept. 13, 1925, in Fairfort, Alabama and was raised in Mobile. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

She married Leonard Ballou, a music instructor, and the couple moved to Montgomery in 1952, where Ballou joined the Women’s Political Council, a group working to address racial discrimination and improve social conditions for African Americans. She and others helped organize carpools during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Ballou became King’s secretary, a job she initially rejected, when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in December 1955. As King’s secretary, she wrote and replied to letters on his behalf, managed his travel arrangements and, by some accounts, kept the young Baptist preacher focused.

In a 2015 interview with the Washington Post, historian David Garrow, who wrote the monumental King chronicle “Bearing the Cross,” said Ballou played a pivotal role in King’s early efforts to battle racial segregation.

“You look through the papers of the Montgomery period, and up to 85 percent of the signatures are in Maude’s hand,” Garrow told the Post. “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.”

Away from work, Maude and Leonard Ballou were close friends with Martin and Coretta King, the couples often meeting at one another’s homes to socialize, according to published accounts.

Ten years ago, in an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Ballou, who some have suggested could have passed for white, recalled a 1955 incident in Montgomery when she got on an empty bus and sat up front, only to be confronted by the driver.

Are you white? the driver asked.

What do you think? Ballou replied.

Told to sit in the rear, she got off and walked home. Months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and was arrested.

In the preface to his book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” which recounted the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King said Ballou “continually encouraged me to persevere in this work.”

Maude Ballou: Courtesy of the Ballou family

Although not a front-line marcher in the battle to end segregation, Ballou faced her share of danger. In the days when members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white segregationists were bombing the homes of black civil rights leaders in Alabama, she was listed at No. 21 on a list of people and churches most vulnerable to violent attack.

In interviews later in life, Ballou recalled being shadowed and seeing cars at night parked near her Montgomery office that seemed conspicuously out of place.

She also spoke of the day when King called her at home in Montgomery and told Ballou not to have her husband drive to work that day; he would pick her up instead. According to the Post, King told Ballou that he dreamed he had died and that no one came to his funeral.

“And I told him, ‘Oh, Martin, no, no. That is not going to happen.’ He was serious. That got to me,” she told the paper.

When King moved to Atlanta in 1960 to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ballou accompanied him there to help establish his new office. She rejoined her family in Petersburg, Virginia, when her husband began work at Virginia State College later that year.

A move to N.C

The family later moved to North Carolina, where Maude Ballou became assistant registrar at Elizabeth City State University. They moved to Charlotte in the early 1970s. Ballou later took an administrative job at Johnson C. Smith University and retired as a CMS teacher at Ransom Middle School.

Despite her low profile, Ballou found herself in the national spotlight when, in 2011, the King estate sued her son, Howard, seeking to take possession of some King-related documents owned by Ms. Ballou. Two years later, the court ruled in Howard Ballou’s favor.

The Ballou family subsequently auctioned 100 pieces of King-related memorabilia, netting about $104,000, according to published reports. According to the Post, most of the money went to pay legal bills, and some was allocated for a scholarship fund at Alabama State.

Said to be among the family’s most cherished possession is an autographed copy of King’s “Stride Toward Freedom.” In it, King is said to have inscribed this message:

To my secretary Maude Ballou,
In appreciation for your genuine 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.

Maude Ballou is survived by her children, Joyce Ballou, Leonard Ballou Jr, Howard Ballou and Vicki Ballou Watts, along with 11 grandchildren, 4 great grandchildren.

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Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.