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Willa Player, 94, college president, activist

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Willa B. Player, former president of Bennett College, who supported the civil rights movement and was the first black woman in the nation to head a four-year college, died Wednesday. She was 94.

Dr. Player organized a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958 when no other group in Greensboro would welcome him. King spoke that February before an audience of hundreds in the Pfeiffer Chapel, an event that Dr. Player considered one of her crowning achievements, according to "The Long Walk," a book about Dr. Player written by her niece, Linda Brown.

The speech planted the seed for many of the protests that followed in the city, Brown wrote.

Two years later, four students from North Carolina A & T State University staged a sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Greensboro. Bennett students had wanted to stage a similar demonstration months earlier, but faculty members dissuaded them, fearing for their safety.

Once the demonstrations began, however, Bennett students and faculty members joined in. At the peak of desegregation protests downtown, as much as 40 percent of Bennett's student body was under arrest.

Dr. Player backed her students, known as the Bennett Belles, visiting them daily and arranging for professors to hold class and administer exams for students.

The Mississippi native came to Bennett when she was 21 to teach Latin and French. Four years later, she joined the administration of the private Methodist school for black women, first as the coordinator of instruction. In 1956, she was named president of the school, a position she held for a decade.

During her tenure, Bennett became one of the first black college to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

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