Photo by Michael Buckelew
COVINGTON -- As a child of about 8 years old, Dorothy Piedrahita sat on the front row when Martin Luther King Jr. gave an impassioned speech at Holt Street Baptist Church at the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
It was Dec. 5, 1955, and Piedrahita was the only child in attendance. She had persuaded her parents to let her come.
"His voice, the way he would speak, it was very melodious," she said. The shouts and singing of the congregation, "We want freedom now! We want freedom now!" lit a fire in Piedrahita that has never been quenched and planted the seed for her to become one of the foremost student Civil Rights leaders.
Now a resident of Covington, Piedrahita will tell her story at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Newton County Library, located at 7116 Floyd St. The public is encouraged to attend the free event.
Piedrahita has long resisted sharing her story publicly, but her son finally persuaded her because, "I'll be 65 this year and all the old ones are dying out," she said.
Piedrahita was nearly killed on three occasions and jailed once, but, "It's not going to be a talk about hatred. It's about helping each other," she said.
Raised in Chicago and Montgomery, Piedrahita saw early on how different the North was from the racially divided South. She recalls stopping with her parents at a gas station, where she hopped out of the car to take a drink from the water fountain. A woman ran out and cleaned the fountain with Ajax.
"I didn't understand that," she said.
After graduating high school in 1964, Piedrahita attended college at Alabama State University, where she organized students in protests against the separate but equal doctrine. She helped stage sit-ins at the college president's office and organized student involvement in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, where she met King for the second time.
During her college years, Piedrahita was nearly killed several times, once when a bullet barely missed her head as she gave a speech during a nonviolent demonstration. Several friends were murdered. Piedrahita was arrested during a protest at the state capitol. But incredibly, she said she rarely felt fear.
"Even when I was nearly killed, surrounded by white men, I wasn't afraid," she said, adding that she believed her involvement in Civil Rights was the purpose of her life then, just as her volunteer work is now. The violence and threats didn't deter her, but her parents finally convinced her to leave Montgomery after graduation for fear that she would be killed.
Piedrahita graduated on Sunday and caught a bus to Detroit the following Wednesday, remembering that Gov. George Romney had once told her, "You'll always have a friend in Michigan."
She became a social worker for the state, but so missed her parents that she moved back to Montgomery after two years only to leave again in three weeks. "It was still the same racist place, and I couldn't stay there," she said.
Piedrahita hitchhiked to Georgia in 1970. She got a job as a sales representative with the Pepsi Cola Company and eventually worked for several Atlanta mayors. She was the city's coordinator for Meals on Wheels for 12 years and helped found the first camp for children with epilepsy through her work with the Georgia Epilepsy Foundation.
Piedrahita stayed in Atlanta until 1996, when she move back to Montgomery to care for her ailing mother. She found the city much changed.
"The same capitol where I had been arrested many years ago for demonstrating, I was able to go and volunteer as a hostess," she said. "I had come full circle."
She went on to work in that capitol, where blacks were formerly not allowed, as an administrative assistant to future governor Don Seigel. In 2000, Piedrahita became the first black woman to run for mayor of Montgomery.
Though she lost her bid, "Even the older mayors who were still around told me, 'You've got a lot of guts.' I danced toe to toe with all of them."
Piedrahita moved to Conyers in 2005 to be near her brother, by that time needing assistance in caring for her mother. After her mother's death she married and moved to Covington.
She is currently volunteering with AARP, helping low-income residents prepare their tax returns, and for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
"We don't know the potential and power we have if we don't give back and help somebody," she said. "I just believe you don't need to sit back. If you can do something, you do it."