During the early 1960s in a segregated Chicago, white limousine drivers refused to accommodate African-American VIPs. Consequently, if these black dignitaries needed an escort, they would use limousines from funeral homes to move about the city. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago in 1962, civil rights leader Edwin Berry asked A.R. Leak, a local funeral director, if King could be chauffeured with a limousine. Leak’s son, Spencer, “begged” his father to allow him to drive the already famous King.
Born in Chicago on April 15, 1937, Spencer Leak Sr. was only 25 years old when he began to escort King to rallies, speeches and demonstrations throughout the city. Leak was King’s driver from 1962 to 1966 during what he described as “a very exciting time.”
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Leak to discuss his unique experience with King and how it changed him.
How did it feel to have an opportunity like this so young?
It was very exciting. Not that I was that civil rights conscious at the time because I was just a young man. But I was attracted to the notoriety of Dr. King. I knew that wherever Dr. King was, there were going to be reporters and television cameras and all that, so I just wanted to be part of that. I was just excited to be in the mix of those who were a part of the motorcades as well as the entourages, things of that nature.
That must have made you feel pretty famous.
I felt like I was a VIP myself, not just a chauffeur. I thought I was really somebody. Driving Dr. King in a long, black, 1961 Cadillac limousine was really something. I was just moved by the moment. I knew I was just a chauffeur, but to be his chauffeur… that made me something special.
Did you ever feel like you were putting yourself in danger by getting that close to him?
I never thought about it. I didn’t have any regards to safety or security. However, we had police bodyguards. Mayor Richard [J.] Daley assigned [Chicago Police Department officers] to him and they rode shotgun. I drove, and Dr. King was in the back. But I never thought I had a security problem. It just never came to mind. I was just excited to be a part of the scene.
What about Dr. King? Was he ever nervous or concerned on the way to an event?
No. He was never concerned about his security. Although I did not drive him to the march in Marquette Park where he was struck with the brick, because if I had, I would have been marching with him. Those around him became more concerned and security was tightened.
How would you describe Dr. King?
He had a great sense of humor and a boisterous laugh. He was observant of all things and sensitive to me and my position. He never said “Hey, boy. Get my things!” or anything like that. It was a really beautiful relationship.
Are there any particular drives you remember being especially exciting?
I don’t know if you’ve seen the photo of him at Soldier Field where he’s speaking to about 50-60,000 people? Well, I’m just under him. I drove him there. I had to drive him like they do with the rock stars around the circumference of the field so everybody could wave at him. And of course, we had a lot of celebrities there and singers as well. It was extraordinary.
That must have been surreal to be that close to him during such an event.
Oh, yes, Soldier Field. That was extraordinary just for the number of people that were there. The speech was incredible. It was a great day and a great time for us.
You mentioned you weren’t very civil rights minded at the time. Did your experience with Dr. King change that?
I became very civil rights minded after that. In 1964, Memorial Day, my dad and I and other ministers along with the Urban League and the NAACP marched on Oakwood Cemetery. Oakwood Cemetery is in the Woodlawn area in the middle of the black community. [Cemeteries] were segregated and would not allow African American burials or cremations, so we did a test case on them. We had a young lady who wanted her mother buried [at Oakwood] and we took our whole entourage to the cemetery so they could officially deny us on the reporters’ cameras. Then, a week later, we marched on that cemetery. About 10,000 came to protest the segregationist policies of the cemetery. That was Memorial Day 1964 and they changed their policy the following Monday.
Do you think you had a role in the civil rights era now that you look back on being the driver for Dr. King?
I felt like I was a part of it, even though my role was the chauffeur. It’s an integral part though because he’s got to be taken where he’s got to go. I felt afterward that I played an important role.
How did it feel being in such a private setting with Dr. King?
Driving him was a very exciting time for me because I knew I was driving a very important person. His VIP status had already been established and the fact that I was driving him and that all eyes were on him meant that all eyes were on the chauffeur. But when I heard him speak and the sincerity of his mission, I was moved by that. His speeches, of course, were always thought provoking and so inspirational. But just to be a part of the moment because there were so many people pressing to get to him, that’s how popular he was. He was like a rock star. That’s how people treated him. I was moved by that. I have never been that close to someone who was as adored and idolized as he was. Not only black people, but white people. It was across the color lines. I’ll just never forget the fact that I had that privilege, and that privilege was born out of segregation. Had there been delivery companies downtown who would have driven him, I would have never had that opportunity.