Great-uncle of Pirates’ Tony Watson was part of Rev. King’s inner circle
January 18, 2016 12:00 AM
From left, Andrew Young, Tom Offenburger and Stoney Cooks discuss Mr. Young’s 1972 congressional campaign strategy.
Mr. Offenburger with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who succeeded the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as president of Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Tom Offenburger, far left, walks alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta in 1967. Rev. King had just returned home from serving a short jail sentence in Birmingham, Ala.
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Pirates pitcher Tony Watson.
“We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the civil-rights movement, is etched on Mr. Offenburger’s gravestone at Rose Hill Cemetery in Shenandoah, Iowa.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tony Watson, the Pirates’ trusty relief pitcher, was only a month old when his great-uncle Tom Offenburger, a former press aide for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the stormy 1960s, died in 1986 in Atlanta after open-heart surgery at age 52.
Mr. Offenburger isn’t often counted among the central figures of the civil-rights movement, but he played a key supporting role, one his sister Beverly Watson — Mr. Watson’s grandmother — and brother Chuck Offenburger still are eager to explain. Both still live in Iowa, not far from where they grew up.
“Tom’s strategy was always to explain the civil-rights movement’s message in terms that white people back home in Shenandoah, Iowa, would understand,” said Chuck Offenburger, 68, a former longtime columnist for the Des Moines Register. “If they could understand what the civil-rights leaders were doing, they would support it, and they would stand with them. If they understood.”
In 1966, Tom Offenburger left U.S. News and World Report, where he had worked for 10 years, to become director of information at SCLC under the leadership of Rev. King and the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Mr. Offenburger later worked 14 years as press secretary for Andrew Young, an activist who served as a congressman and as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations before becoming Atlanta’s mayor in 1982.
Mr. Watson never saw his great-uncle’s name in U.S. history textbooks as a high schooler in Grimes, Iowa, but he has heard the stories, and marveled.
“It’s pretty crazy when you really step back and grasp that he was right there,” Mr. Watson said, “right on the ground floor.”
One might wonder how a boy from rural Iowa ended up on the front lines of social activism. The way his siblings remember it, though Shenandoah was a completely white town in those days, the seven Offenburger children were raised Catholic and taught equality and generosity to all.
On July 10, 1966, Rev. King led a crowd of 35,000 to Chicago’s Soldier Field for a freedom rally as part of the Chicago Open Housing Movement. Tom Offenburger was there as a member of the press, working as Midwest bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report.
Two months later, when activists marched on Cicero, Ill., site of 1951 race riots, Tom Offenburger interviewed Rev. King, met SCLC’s outgoing press director, Junius Griffin, and decided he was on the wrong side of the fence. He had seen one too many ghettos, he told his sister, he had seen too many people who needed help.
“We grew up in a small, small town with no black people at all,” Beverly Watson, 83, recalled. “We weren’t used to seeing what he was seeing in Chicago.”
Chuck Offenburger was a freshman at Vanderbilt University when his older brother took a pay cut to join Rev. King in Atlanta. The younger brother traveled to Atlanta often for school breaks, and once heard Rev. King preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“He was as good a speaker as you’ve ever heard or read,” Chuck Offenburger said. “[SCLC staffers] were a helluva lot of fun, too. People forget how young these people were who were at the vanguard of the civil-rights movement. It was really something.”
He fondly recalled one Thanksgiving when the group had a “progressive” dinner that moved from the King family’s home to Mr. Young’s home and on and on. At one point, they wound up at a basketball court around the corner from the SCLC offices.
“We were playing H-O-R-S-E and everything else,” Chuck Offenburger said, laughing. “I can still remember Dr. King shooting two-handed, underhanded free throws.”
That, he believes, was in 1967, five months before Rev. King was assassinated at age 39 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Not knowing his brother’s whereabouts, Chuck Offenburger, then a news editor at Vanderbilt’s student newspaper, caught the first flight to Memphis that evening.
“The city was just in flames,” he recalled.
Chuck Offenburger bribed a cab driver to drop him off as close as he could to the Lorraine Motel. Once he reached the lobby, he met SCLC staffers Hosea Williams and Mr. Young and learned that his brother, Tom, had flown back to Atlanta earlier in the day, before the shooting.
“It’s too damn dangerous out there,” Mr. Williams told him, so the kid reporter stayed the night at the Lorraine Motel with Rev. King’s shell-shocked staff.
“It was a hell of a night,” Chuck Offenburger said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Tom Offenburger’s career began in high school when he got a job as sports editor at the hometown Evening Sentinel, a post his younger brother later would hold, too. He loved baseball and returned to coach the high school team while at the University of Iowa.
“The Offenburgers are these flaky romantics who love the game and are lousy at playing it,” joked Chuck Offenburger, who refers to his sister Beverly Watson as the Queen Mother of Baseball. “Once we got into the Watson family gene pool, then we had a match with physical ability and heart and desire. You put that together and you get Tony Watson.”
Chuck Offenburger said his late brother never met his major-league great-nephew, but “If Tom were alive, there’d be almost no one prouder of Tony Watson. Tom was an absolute baseball zealot.”
In 1986, Tom Offenburger, who never married, underwent open-heart surgery and never fully recovered from the operation. When he fell into a coma, he was visited often at Emory University Hospital by Mr. Young, then mayor of Atlanta, who would pat him on arm and say, “Tom, the Braves won tonight.”
“He was getting baseball reports ’til the end,” Chuck Offenburger said.
At the funeral, Mr. Young in his eulogy said Tom Offenburger’s contribution to the civil-rights campaign was his ability to turn “a hostile press into seekers of the truth.”
The ceremony closed with the congregation linking arms to sing, “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil-rights movement and the three-word refrain inscribed on Tom Offenburger’s tombstone in his hometown. His brother guessed it may well have been the first time the song ever was sung in Shenandoah.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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