When I Met Dr. King By Charlayne Hunter-Gault


My one and only encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr., was during a chance meeting on what was then called “Sweet Auburn Avenue,” the prosperous hub of black-owned businesses in Atlanta. It was the summer of 1961, when King had earned the love and respect of the city’s young civil-rights demonstrators with whom he had marched. I was working as a reporter for the Atlanta Inquirer, an independent black newspaper covering the city’s ongoing segregation, writing stories that mainstream newspapers chose to ignore.

By the time I met King, he and a group of local students had triumphed in their effort to end the racist practice of separate and unequal in local restaurants, shops, and schools. King had joined them on the picket line, at sit-ins, and in jail. The attorney Donald Hollowell represented the students in court. The experience would inspire the young people to add a new mantra to their freedom slogans: “King is our leader, Hollowell is our lawyer, and we shall not be moved.”

King’s support for the demonstrators in Atlanta led to one of the worst experiences of his career. When the students were released after merchants agreed to desegregate, King was forced to remain in jail and was transported to a prison miles away from Atlanta. He was made to lie in the back of a police vehicle with a dog snarling at him the entire way there. Even after his release, challenges remained throughout the South.

I met King many months after his release on a bright, sunny day, when I happened to be on Sweet Auburn Avenue with a colleague, who suddenly turned to me and said, “There’s Dr. King.” I was awed by this chance meeting with a man who, at that point, was already the icon of the civil-rights movement.


I ran up to him, prepared to introduce myself and to lavish praise on him for all that he had done for Atlanta and the students, and for his sacrifices on behalf of black Americans. As I started to introduce myself—before I could get past my name—he reached for my hand, energetically shaking it, while telling me he was proud to meet me.

“You are doing a such magnificent job down there,” he said, a reference to my enrollment at the all-white University of Georgia, where Hamilton Holmes and I were the first African-American students to attend earlier that year. As I recalled, in a book I wrote years later, King told me that education “was the key to our freedom, and then he generously thanked me again and wished me success.”

Before I could tell him how proud of him I was, he was mobbed by other admirers, which prevented him from seeing the tears rolling down my cheeks. I will always remember that moment and what it taught me about King and one of his core values: humility. Over the next several years, I watched King with admiration as I tried to find my way in journalism. In 1963, while sitting at my desk at The New Yorker, I watched the March on Washington, which he and other civil-rights activists organized, and shed more tears as King talked about his dream of living in a country where his four children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In the speech, he displayed the humility as well as the strength of his convictions that I had seen in Atlanta, before hundreds of thousands of Americans.

King’s assassination fifty years ago caused me to leave a special fellowship for “new journalism” I had at Washington University, in St. Louis. By then, there were riots in the streets all over the country, and I didn’t think the classroom was where I needed to be.

I went to Washington to cover, for Transaction magazine, the Poor People’s Campaign and the next phase of the civil-rights movement, focussing on human rights and economic justice. Thousands travelled to the nation’s capital to spend their days in tents, undeterred by the pouring rain that left the Mall a muddy mess.

They made their way, each and every day, for six weeks, to the grounds and halls of Congress to make their demands heard, undeterred by nature or by human resistance. And while King was no longer physically among them, surely, they were motivated by his spirit and his determination for all of God’s children to be free at last.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a journalist and a special correspondent for the year-long PBS NewsHour series “Race Matters: Solutions.”


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Robert F. Kennedy gave what turned out to be an iconic speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

As darkness took hold on April 4, 1968, newly declared presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy stepped in front of a microphone atop a flatbed truck in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Indianapolis.

Looking out onto the crowd, Kennedy turned and quietly asked a city official, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?”

The civil rights leader had been shot a few hours earlier, though the news that he was dead hadn’t reached everyone yet.

Listen to this story on “Retropod”:

“We’ve left it up to you,” the official said.

What unfolded during the next six minutes, according to historians and Kennedy biographers, is one of the most compelling and overlooked speeches in U.S. political history — the brother of an assassinated president announcing another devastating assassination two months before he’d be killed, too.

“I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world,” the 42-year-old senator said in his thick Boston accent, “and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

There were audible gasps.

Kennedy, wearing his brother’s overcoat and speaking without notes, quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus — “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart …” — and to the astonishment of his aides, the audience and even his own family, the senator referenced his brother’s murder for the first time.

Kennedy speaks in a predominantly black neighborhood in Indianapolis. (Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society)

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

That night, amid one of the most chaotic years in American history, the country burned. Riots broke out in more than 100 cities, including Washington, where at least a dozen people died.

“I was upset, to put it mildly,” said Abie Washington, then 26 and just out of the Navy, who stood that evening in the crowd listening to Kennedy. “I was pissed. Something needed to be done and I wanted to do it.”

But as Kennedy kept speaking, something came over him.

“My level of emotion went from one extreme to another,” Washington said. “He had empathy. He knew what it felt like. Why create more violence?”

There was no rioting in Indianapolis.

~~~  MORE  ~~~

When MLK Was Killed, He Was In Memphis Fighting For Economic Justice ~ NPR


Striking sanitation workers and their supporters are flanked by bayonet-wielding National Guard troops and armored vehicles during a march on City Hall in Memphis, Tenn., on March 29, 1968, one day after a similar march erupted in violence, leaving one person dead and several injured.

Charlie Kelly /AP


It was a call for help from activists that took the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in March 1968. Days later he would be fatally shot by James Earl Ray on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

But before the motel, the shooting, the riots and the mourning, there was the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.

King broke away from his work on the Poor People’s Campaign to travel from Atlanta to Tennessee and help energize the strikers — his last cause for economic justice.

Fifty years later, Elmore Nickelberry is one of the last strike participants still on the job with the Memphis Sanitation Department. He’s 86 and his night shift starts at the “barn” — mostly a giant parking lot full of garbage trucks.

Today he’s a driver with a crew of two, and his truck is equipped to lift and dump trash bins. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, he did the lifting and dumping.

“When I first started it was rough,” he says. “I had to tote tubs on my head, on my shoulders, under my arms.”

Enlarge this image

Eighty-six-year-old Elmore Nickelberry is one of the last strike participants still on the job with the Memphis Sanitation Department.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

He rode on the back of truck, jumping off to go into people’s back yards to pick up garbage. It was a filthy, and often thankless job.

Nickelberry says the trash tubs would leak, dripping onto his clothes. Sometimes he would have to climb into the back of the truck to help load the garbage.

“And when I’d load the truck there would be maggots in my shoes,” says Nickelberry.

But the city didn’t let African-American workers shower at the barn – that was reserved for the white drivers. And there was no place for them to take shelter in the rain. In early 1968 trash collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker climbed into the back of a truck to escape a storm, and were accidently crushed to death by its compactor.

In response, workers organized to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Nickelberry says they had no respect.

“Most of the time they’d call us boys,” he says. “Or we’d get on the bus and they’d say ‘look at that old garbage man.’ And I knew I wasn’t no garbage man. I just worked in garbage.”

Then Mayor Henry Loeb rejected the workers’ demands, refusing to recognize their union. They walked off the job. Nickelberry says they marched downtown every morning, wearing sandwich boards and carrying placards that declared “I Am A Man.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

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