I Met Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965


I’m thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. On June 14, 1965, I met Dr. King at a week long training in Atlanta, Georgia. We were there to prepare for registering black voters during a time when it was dangerous for blacks to register and vote. Here is the section from my book, YOU CAME HERE TO DIE, DIDN’T YOU, where I describe that meeting.

“Unexpectedly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., enters from the side door and a standing ovation rocks the gym. Dressed in a dark suit, he looks like the pictures I’ve seen. But he looks so tired, as though the weight of responsibility hurts his heart and soul. He begins with, ‘It seems strange to hear people say Negroes are stupid or illogical when we’ve listened to those who have spoken from this lectern the last few days.’ And then his lesson begins. I feel he speaks just to me, that I am alone and his words are my lifeline. ‘As the Bible says in Matthew 5:43-45, you should love your neighbor and hate your enemies. But Matthew then tells us to love our enemies, to bless those who abuse us, to do good to those who hate us, to pray for those who treat you spitefully, and persecute you.’

“He explains our journey together in terms of Christian understanding. As in “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” (published in 1963) he explains why the direct action of voter registration is necessary and our responsibility. He tells us nonviolence isn’t cowardly, but being spiritually active against evil. Our purpose is to gain the people’s understanding, not to hurt them. We must choose to accept others’ actions without verbal or physical retaliation. ‘Act in the conviction that the universe is based on justice and that goodness will prevail.’

“No one in the audience stirs. He speaks with passion, but something is different, here, in person. I don’t feel the same awe and inspiration I see in the ecstatic faces around me. Slowly I realize he’s not recruiting volunteers this time. He’s presenting a pep talk, a celebration of the importance of what we’re doing in Atlanta. This time he’s not on television and I’m beginning to understand how the situation has changed. I’m growing into the role I will play: a civil rights worker. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is real and the barefoot girl next to me may not be able to read and write. This time my body is involved and the boy in the bib overalls has made my mortality all too real.

“Some people, like the girl next to me, weep. Others pray. Resolve radiates from the faces of the rest. Dr. King steps off the stage to join a reception line including Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin and several other leaders of The Movement. We wait in line, awed that we are about to shake the hand of a great man among great men. I will never forget their faces or the tender hand of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holding mine.”


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