It was about this time that Dr. King first came into our lives. My father had been corresponding with him since 1956, and invited him to come preach in the spring of 1959, but King was stabbed in Harlem by a crazed woman wielding a letter opener and couldn’t make it.
I remember the winter of 1960–near the end of January–when King took the train up from Washington DC and my father and I picked him up in the old Peugeot station wagon at the Trenton railroad station. He was traveling on his own and seemed to my 8-year-old imagination surprisingly short and unassuming when he stepped out onto the platform wearing a woolen coat and Homburg hat. I’d heard my father speak of this man and his leadership of the civil rights movement: “For me he is one of the rare prophetic voices in the land,” said my father, but I didn’t really understand what that meant.
We took him to our house on Ivy Lane and I remember the roads were icy and my father drove very slowly because we’d been in an ice-related accident a few days earlier and the back door of the Peugeot was smashed in. My dad had tied the door shut with a piece of twine but it broke and the door flew open as we rounded a traffic circle near the train station. Dr. King reached out and grabbed me so I wouldn’t fall out of the car.
My mother was standing on the front porch, shivering in the cold, smoking one of her filtered cigarettes. She greeted Dr. King and led him up to the guest room at the top of the stairs and made sure he was comfortable and had everything he needed. King was charming and took time to chat about things that my sister and I had interest in. He asked us about school and what books we were reading and what sports we liked to play.
He then took a nap and came down a few hours later to meet the professors, students, civil rights workers and campus leaders of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) who had assembled for the evening in our living room.
Sadie Ray, our cook, was in the kitchen making roast beef, mashed potatoes and string beans, her fingers long and splayed, greasy with Crisco and battered with bread crumbs. It was her standby meal for large groups, but she was already complaining to my mother. Her minister at the First Baptist Church on Green Street had preached a sermon the week before about King being a troublemaker, a “self-loathing Negro”, in his words.
At first, she snubbed Dr. King and refused to serve him dinner. My mother was mortified and didn’t know what to do. She just stood there by the swinging pantry door, aghast. Dr. King soon took things in hand and walked into the kitchen, introduced himself and sat at the round table near the stove, eating Sadie’s delicious food while explaining the civil rights movement and the challenges of the NAACP. It was a one-to-one seminar, while the rest of the guests sat in the chill of the formal dining room, wondering what was going on back there in the kitchen.
Dr. King was the sweetest, most humble guest, a friend, a luminous presence, a beautiful voice, right there in the room with you, making direct eye contact while speaking, shaping rhythms with his words, insisting on helping with the dishes after dinner, the center of attention but deferring to others, possessing an inner warmth and sense of love for the everyday as well as the eternal, a soaring figure for any age, but none of us understood that yet. (Needless to say, Sadie was forever won over).
The next time he came to visit–on April 29, 1962– Reverend King preached in the university chapel in tandem with Dr. Karl Barth, the legendary Swiss theologian. Seventy-five-year-old Barth was the principal author of the “Barmen Declaration” and one of the first public figures in Germany to stand up against Hitler. Because of his Swiss citizenship, Barth managed to escape with his life, but his compatriot Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by Nazi thugs in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
My father was thrilled to bring these two champions of human dignity, King and Barth, together. King had written his thesis on “Barth’s Conception of God” (1952), but it was the first and only time the two great moral leaders actually met. After the service, they came back to our house and sat side-by-side at the dining-room table, deep in conversation. This time, Sadie was prepared and showered King with love through the food she prepared: deep fried chicken, scalloped potatoes, collard greens, buttermilk biscuits and thick, giblet gravy.
Dr. King was supposed to come back for another visit in 1965, but his schedule didn’t allow it and he wrote an apologetic letter that I recently came across among my father’s papers: “Due to the temper of events in the struggle for racial justice, I have had to adopt a policy spending the next several months working on the grass roots level in various communities to grapple with the problems of discrimination that Negroes still face in our country. It has also become necessary for me to spend much more time conducting non-violent workshops throughout the nation… Please know that I deeply regret my inability to accept your gracious invitation. It is my hope that I will have an opportunity to serve you sometime in the future. Please do not hesitate to call on me. With warm personal regards, I am very sincerely yours, Martin.”
The day he died, three years later, on April 4, 1968, my father was cradling his right hand with his left. Somehow, he’d injured his thumb.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Shot!” He shook his head. “Assassinated! Shot down in cold blood! Just like that.”
He was weeping, turning his face away from the light. That’s what the men on the street must have been talking about. I’d been so preoccupied with my own problems, age 16, that I hadn’t understood the gravity of the situation.
“The bloody fools shot him down, a prophet in his own land.”
And I will never forget the way he spoke those words that evening: “A prophet in his own land”, trembling with emotion.
We all sat in the living room watching the reports coming through the television screen, Walter Cronkite speaking slowly, as if fighting back tears himself, explaining how King had been shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It happened at 7PM and my father was already on the phone making arrangements to get to the funeral.
My mother drove him to the emergency room that same night and after taking x-rays, the doctor told him that he’d broken his thumb and proceeded to wrap it with bandages and a metal splint.
A few days later, he flew to Atlanta and marched at the front of the procession, near Coretta, and spent most of the afternoon with Dr. King Senior who told him about how young Martin had seemed to understand his fate, and sensed that he only had a short time to live.
Later that week, my father returned to Princeton and conducted a memorial service to a packed chapel. He wore a long purple chasuble and I could see the metal splint and bandage when he raised his hand to make the sign of the cross during the Benediction.
“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…”
This is the sixth in a series of “discoveries” about
my father’s extraordinary life. See also:
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