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Fresno Activist Reflects On Working With Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
In the 1960s, songwriter and activist Jimmy Collier would warm up the crowd before Martin Luther King would speak.

The song “Burn, Baby Burn” was originally written about the Watts Riots – a series of deadly protests against police brutality in 1965 – but it later became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1968 assassination. The songwriter, Jimmy Collier, now lives in Fresno. But in the 1960s, he worked alongside Dr. King, using his music to organize civil rights activists. He wrote about the experience in a book published last year on the Chicago Freedom Movement. Here, he speaks with reporter Kerry Klein about the book and what it was like to work with Dr. King.

Music always came easily to Jimmy Collier, but he decided early on to use it as a means to an end rather than as the end itself. And that end was fighting for civil rights.

“I played music all the time, even from a young age, but I really saw myself as an activist," he says. "Voting rights, housing, Title IX issues, issues about war and the climate. When I got involved in demonstrations, the guitar and singing and whatnot kind of came to me.”

Collier says he was always carrying his guitar—and it became an asset when he was out speaking with the community, attending meetings, and organizing.

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Credit The University Press of Kentucky
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Collier wrote a chapter in this 2016 book on music as a tool for social change.

“There's something about music that carries its own sort of vulnerability, I guess, and then when you're able to do that, it encourages other people to open up to maybe new ideas—or joining the movement," he says.

“A lot of times, if [Dr. King] was speaking somewhere, we would be part of getting people there and organizing—and I developed into kind of an opening act for him because they didn't want people to know exactly when he was going to arrive.”

He was 19 or 20 when he met the reverend.

“I just kind of get an image of seeing him with his suit on," he says. "He always had a suit on. I was thrilled, my little heart was going pitter patter.

“The quality in his voice, the way he used words—it really was like music or something beyond. It just was a different quality. Really good speakers are really really good, and he was just phenomenal. I don't know if he was the best speaker in the world, but it seemed like it. And I thought, this was where I need to be. It's really sort of defined my whole life.”

Dr. King once helped Collier buy a new guitar, and he even married Collier and his first wife, activist Sherie Land. Collier says he doesn’t remember much of what was said during the ceremony, but says, laughing, “I’m sure it was inspirational.”

Just after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Collier published an album of music from the movement with fellow activist Revered Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick. Since, then, Collier moved to California and had a followed a career in the construction industry, from which he’s now retired—all while maintaining music and activism on the side.

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Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
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KVPR
The book contains this archival photo of Collier performing with other activists.

Fifty years later, Collier looks back on his civil rights work in the 1960s with pride.

“People step up in the time that they have to step up, and do what they can contribute, and I feel like, when I was young and had that energy, I could take that kind of risk," he says. "When we look back at that period with Dr. King, it's kind of amazing what was accomplished with a few people and a preacher that could preach real good. And that'll happen again."

Listen to the story for the full interview.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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