This Maryland activist who transcribed MLK’s letter from the Birmingham City Jail

(February 27, 2024) In the 1960s, Willie Pearl Mackey King sensed that there were opportunities outside of her native Georgia (where Jim Crow practices were a way of life). There was no money for college so King moved to Atlanta to work.

An acquaintance mentioned that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was in need of a secretary. When she accepted the job, she had little inkling that she would play a part in civil rights history. 

On the ground during tumultuous times

Soon King met Martin Luther King (MLK), Jr. (the two are not related.) In a short time,  MLK recognized her work skills and asked if she wanted to travel with him as a personal secretary. While with him at churches, marches and in various southern communities, she found a front row seat to the dangerous civil rights struggles of the times. 

MLK was jailed in Birmingham in 1963. While there, he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on whatever paper surface he could find. These included toilet paper, newspaper scraps, and napkins. The letter spelled out his convictions about taking direct action in the fight for civil rights.

Willie Pearl Mackey King worked with MLK’s chief of staff, Wyatt Tee Walker, to painstakingly transcribe and assemble the famous letter from those scraps.  The letter became an essential part of civil rights history, though Willie Pearl Mackey King’s role in the letter went unnoticed for years. 

A life of conviction follows 

The fight for civil rights remained a theme for Willie Pearl Mackey King’s life. She completed a 32-year career with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  She has been a long time Silver Spring resident. 

In March 2023, She was honored by the National Women’s History Museum with the Women Making History award. 

King recalled how her time during a pivotal time of history impacted her: ““I guess what was most compelling to me was seeing how [people from the people-to-people tour] would make commitments and stick to them and was really serious about getting their rights,” she said. “So, I got caught up in that and realized that I had rights also and that I was willing to put my life on the line to make sure that we realize the rights that we were entitled to, in fact, we called it our God given rights.”

Source: This Silver Spring resident was MLK’s secretary. Now she’s being honored. By Akira Kyles April 14, 2023

Listen to Wille Pearl Mackey King tell her life story to the National Women’s History Museum:

Read more and see two historic photos of Wille Pearl Mackey King at

Image that says Letter from Birmingham City Jail