Ralph Worrell was a servant warrior. Like any warrior he was tenacious. But he was above all else a servant. He embodied the spirit of the drum major Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached was necessary to be first in the kingdom.
Worrell was born in Barbados 88 years ago. His ancestors were among those Africans who could not be broken for service as a slave in America.
They did not make it to the mainland during the period of enslavement. The slaveholders feared Africans with the warrior spirit would revolt thereby toppling the free labor system which drove the American economy.
At an early age, Worrell moved to New York where he became active in a Black labor union. He organized Black union members to fight for their fair share of jobs.
Around 1964, Worrell’s union sought to lend a hand to Blacks in the south who were fighting for justice and equality. They sent Worrell to work alongside Dr. King. He was instructed to assist King in whatever manner he deemed necessary. The union paid his salary on Dr. King’s staff.
Worrell was essentially what we call a “body man” today. He was Dr. King’s body man. He unselfishly did whatever it took to make King comfortable. And when the word was given it was time to march, Worrell was ready to go.
One could say he was the spook who sat by the door. Spook not in the sense of a spy, but a ghostly figure, who was always present, but never calling attention to himself, yet forever ready to spring into action and be of service to the president of the organization or a guest waiting to see the president.
For 54 years Worrell was first in rendering service to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was the straw that stirred the SCLC drink. He turned the lights off in the evening and turned them back on at the beginning of a new day.
Worrell served all of the SCLC presidents from King to Charles Steele, Jr., who eulogized Worrell as “a man who served with an empty pocket, but was always ready to be of service to somebody else.”
Perhaps no figures cast a larger shadows over the work of SCLC than King and Worrell.
Worrell died last week. Two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King.
When the servant warrior set out for home, there were no network television cameras at Cascade United Methodist Church to witness it. No one from the Pulitzer Prize winning daily newspaper in town was present to record Worrell’s farewell.
The media did not know that nothing was done at SCLC in the last 54 years without the aid and service of Ralph Worrell. You can google him and his name will not come right up.
He did not want to take credit for what he was doing. He did not have a need to feel important. He wanted to do God’s will. He did his work quietly, gracefully, expertly, tenaciously.
“What I learned from Mr. Worrell is wisdom,” said Samuel Mosteller a longtime member of SCLC.
“I traveled all over Louisiana one year with Mr. Worrell. I got to know him pretty good. He did not speak unless he knew what he was talking about. He would study an issue until he knew what was going on.”
Mosteller said that many people thought Worrell was a mere driver and were not aware of his many contributions to the movement.
“He was very smart, but he did not care to show it. The only reason he was the driver is because he came south to Atlanta to do whatever made Dr. King’s job easier. After Dr. King was assassinated he stayed and did what he could to help Dr. Abernathy [Ralph David] and the rest of the presidents, Mosteller said.
According to Maynard Eaton, Communications Director for SCLC, Worrell got his name in the newspaper one time. That was recently. A story that Eaton pitched to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“He was real pleased with that. It made him happy. I am glad that I pitched that story to the AJC,” Eaton said.
In his eulogy, Dr. Steele promised the spirit of Ralph Worrell,”we will continue to march.”
Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, President Emeritus of SCLC said, “Ralph was my friend. He always made me comfortable. He drove me most places I went.”
Then Lowery’s voice cracked: “I am going to miss Ralph for the rest of my days. So long Ralph, I will see you in the morning.”
Following the service, the 95 year-old Lowery without Worrell to drive him any longer, drove his motorized wheelchair down the driveway of the church to his home about 100 yards across the street.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org