APRIL 12, 2018 – Though I never marched with the man his followers called Martin, I followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s career closely; first as a student, later as a Washington-based reporter for the former Dow-Jones newsweekly, the National Observer.
I first met Dr. King 61 years ago, in February 1957. When he came to Oberlin College in Ohio at the invitation of the campus NAACP chapter and the student forum board, he was the 27-year-old new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. It was his first pulpit.
Rosa Parks, an African-American seamstress, in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man in the back of a Montgomery city bus. “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” Parks wrote in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
When she was arrested and jailed for violating a city ordinance, local blacks protested. Thus was born the boycott to end segregation on buses, and later in all local public facilities, including department stores, water fountains, and restaurants.
It was the birth of the civil rights movement.
I was part of a group of student activists at Oberlin who sensed that this was the start of something big. We wanted to be in on it. So 10 of us, black and white, met for dinner at a round table in a college dining hall to fire questions at this proud, patient, earnest, young country preacher with the deep soulful eyes. He had been chosen to lead the bus boycott, and we had a host of questions for him:
Why was he doing this? What did he hope to accomplish? Was he afraid for himself and his family? What threats had been made against him, his wife, Coretta Scott King, and their small children? Did he really think his tiny movement could end legal and de facto segregation in America?
Dr. King’s answers earned our admiration, as did his talk to the student body later that evening when he cited Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau among the sources of his evolving belief in two new concepts he introduced to us: “non-violent resistance” and “civil disobedience.” Both phrases, combining two words that seemed polar opposites, appealed to us, as did the song I heard for the first time that evening, which later became the anthem of the movement: “We Shall Overcome.”
I remember thinking that evening in 1957, as I listened to this earnest young leader who talked haltingly but with logic and passion: “If only he had the oratory and the imagery to match the majesty of his vision, how effective he could be.” He developed those qualities in full measure in the next few years.
I became a strong supporter of Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) he founded in Atlanta, the civil rights movement, and the cause of ending racial and religious discrimination. I led a successful campus movement to decertify private homes in our college town that rented rooms to white students, while denying rooms to non-whites.
Besides convincing the college administration, we had to convince insensitive white students who argued: “Why should we suffer just because blacks can’t live in certain homes?”
To me – raised with a Jewish social conscience and fully aware of the discrimination our own people have suffered historically – it was a matter of simple justice. The college eventually agreed, and those homes that wouldn’t sign – and honor – a non-discrimination pledge lost their student renters.
Dr. King and his SCLC organized their first – now forgotten – March on Washington in May 1957; 37,000 people turned out to support the cause. Partly in response, Congress created the US Commission on Civil Rights and a civil rights division within the Department of Justice to investigate rights violations. The SCLC organized voter registration drives throughout the South. Members marched, picketed, rallied, and campaigned for jobs, school desegregation, and better housing.
On Aug. 28, 1963, 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the most dramatic US demonstration ever mounted (until last month’s gun-control March for Our Lives) brought 250,000 people to Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. The highlight of the event – the defining moment – was Dr. King at his most powerful, proclaiming what will forever be known as his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Alas, I wasn’t there to hear it. My Army Reserve unit was called to summer duty in upstate New York that week, so I listened to the speech on a portable radio while shining my boots in my bunk.
I can still hear Dr. King’s voice – the stirring cadence of his words, his rising sense of righteous indignation, the clarion call to conscience. His words moved me to tears. They still do. More important, they touched the soul of the nation, transforming a movement into a national consensus.
From that moment on, Dr. King’s cause – ending discrimination, providing equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion, or national origin – became the nation’s cause. But we are still a long way from its realization.
I followed Dr. King when he took his campaign for racial equality north. In 1964, I interviewed him in the rundown apartment he rented in a slum tenement in Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago. His path was no easier there than in the South. In some ways, it was more difficult. In the North, instead of fire hoses, he faced the subtle bigotry of bureaucrats who said yes, then failed to follow up.
I last interviewed Dr. King three years before his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He had publicly voiced opposition to the War in Vietnam, emboldening critics to question his patriotism and causing many white followers to abandon his cause. Toward the end of his life, Dr. King’s influence was waning, his movement in danger of being outflanked by provocative Black Power militants like young Stokely Carmichael. He became increasingly frustrated and depressed. But he never lost his passion or his belief in non-violent resistance as the route to lasting change.
In retrospect, Dr. King was one of a handful of great moral leaders of the 20th century, a towering figure of our time. His death followed the equally violent deaths of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Malcolm X in 1965 and was followed in turn by the assassination of Robert Kennedy just two months later, in June 1968. Coming at a time of national division over Vietnam, these events defined the 1960s as a convulsive decade that brought the United States dangerously close to a state of civil disorder.
We survived. Dr. King did not. But we are a better nation, and it’s a better world, for the impact of this brave, fearless, visionary leader.
Mark Arnold, who writes from Gloucester, is a former editor and publisher of the Jewish Journal.