Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK Day -- Personal Remembrances

For the King holiday here are some personal memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. not likely found elsewhere.  I started collecting them in 2007 and have added mention of times I was on duty at the Cumberland Mall Piccadilly Cafeteria (now closed) when we served members of the King family.

A few years ago NPR's All Things Considered (2007) Michael Rose, director of the Atlanta History Center spoke with Michele Norris about having seen Dr. King in Miami in 1965...
I was with my friend, Gary Herwald. We and a bunch of high school buddies had come down from the North for out last Spring Vacation (it wasn't yet called "spring break") before going off to college. 
Gary and I were standing in a little shopping concourse at the hotel just wandering around. There was a man looking in a window of one of the stores. Among all the people in casual resort wear, he was the only person wearing a business suit. He also was the only African-American.

Gary said to me, "Is that who I think it is?"
I said I thought so. And so we walked over. 
Gary was the one who worked up the nerve to ask him, "Excuse me, sir. Are you Martin Luther King?" 
And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that yes, he was. He wasn't that hard to spot. He was coming off a pretty good year. He had started 1964 on the cover of Time Magazine as Man of the Year. He had ended 1964 by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On this day in the Florida hotel he was thirty-six years old.

He was alone. Gary and I were the only people to approach him. Gary said, "I just want to tell you how much we admire you." 
Dr. King, smiling and making a small joke, said "You boys aren't from Florida, are you?" 
We talked for a few minutes. Nothing earth-shattering. And there was no way to know, of course, that three Springs later he would be dead....
This little eight-minute clip is worth that much of your time. It illustrates how deeply just a momentary encounter can effect someone for a lifetime. There must have been some connection between this encounter and Michael Rose's job at the Atlanta History Center.

The connection between Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi needs no explanation, so here is another story from Mort Reichek, retired journalist blogging at The Octogenarian. This snip is from his story but there are more details at the link.
I recall walking on Chowringhee one day in the fall of 1944 when the atmosphere was anything but tranquil. As I passed the Maidan I encountered an enormous mob of people crowded into the park. The noise was overwhelming. The following day, the local newspapers estimated that at least a million people had been crammed into the Maidan. 
I cautiously approached the crowd to find out what has happening. I quickly learned that a thousand or more yards in front of us, the legendary Mahatma Gandhi was standing on a raised platform and making a speech. Gandhi, the major political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, had been released from a British prison several months earlier. He rarely visited Calcutta, and his scheduled appearance that day had produced the enormous audience that I saw. 
Scores of loudspeakers had been installed across theMaidan's grounds so that the crowds far removed from Gandhi's platform might hear him speak. I assume that he was speaking in Bengali or Hindi. But I doubt whether the locals packed in at the edge of the park near me could possibly hear Gandhi's words. Nor was it even possible for any of them to clearly see "the Mahatma" so far off in the distance. (Gandhi's first name was actually Mohandas, but he was popularly called Mahatma--meaning "great soul"--a fitting title for a man who was worshipped by India's masses as a living saint.) 
A man standing next to me offered me the use of his binoculars so that I might catch a glimpse of Gandhi, who was standing on the platform so far away. At 5'10" I was taller than most of the people crowded around me. I was therefore able to see this great man in person, although the view was not exactly well focused. 
Gandhi was famed for preaching the doctrine of non-violence as the means of gaining India's freedom from British rule. (I am writing this as the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which seems so appropriate since Gandhi was the inspiration for Dr. King's own political philosophy.) 
Indeed, the next day's newspapers reported that Gandhi's speech called for the Indian people to avoid violent action in their struggle for independence. Ironically, his message meant nothing to the young Hindu fanatic who assassinated the 79-year old Gandhi four years later because of the Mahatma's conciliatory attitude towards India's Muslim minority.
As in the case of Michael Rose's encounter with Dr. King, this other equally famous man was to be assassinated four years later. These two stories, though from very different origins, seem to have striking similarities. And in the Cotton Patch tradition I offer them to my readers as Living Epistles about Saints that walk among us. Mort passed away four years later but his stories were always part of my reading diet until then. Speaking of saints, Mort had a story entitled MEMOIR: How my Dad downed a Nazi dirigible and became a "saint." It's not about MLK but it's a great read for those who have time to learn about the Jewish tradition of lamed-vavnik.

The Octogenarian mentioned in passing Mother Teresa and her work in Calcutta. When I worked with a senior community I had the privilege of knowing a delightful woman who had served in India many years before as a medical missionary. She told me that when Mother Teresa began her ministry she had to learn, among other things, how to do hypodermic injections and it was to the medical missionaries she came to learn that skill. You don't have to go far to find a saint. You just have to pay attention and look for clues.When I am tempted to abandon principles the rest of the world dismisses as unrealistic, I remind myself that in an evil world good still sometimes prevails.

My own personal recollections are not about MLK but his family. Three or four times during my training with Piccadilly in 1976-77 the family came to eat at the cafeteria where I was manager on duty, always mid-afternoon on Sunday. They ate together in the part of the dining room with long tables, partly to accommodate five or six people, but also for relative privacy. King's mother, Alberta King, had been killed a couple years earlier but Daddy King, as he was called, was usually along. The first time they came Daddy King sent for the manager on duty. He wanted me to know who he was, that he planned to pay for their meals by personal check and he didn't want to have any trouble as they left. He was polite but firm, a man who knew how to avoid problems. I never engaged them in conversation and considered it my duty to insure they enjoyed their meals without being bothered or even identified.  Also, we lived in downtown Atlanta at that time and our oldest daughter attended C.W.Hill Elementary School. One of her classmates was a member of the King family (I'm not sure who) and we were honored when she was invited once to go to a birthday party for him.


Daddy King had good reason to be cautious when they went to Cumberland Mall. He and his party were well aware that Cobb County was known to be one of Atlanta's emphatically white Northern suburbs. When MARTA (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) was being formed, Cobb county voters made it clear they wanted nothing to do with it, so none of those busses (and later trains) were routed into Cobb. That changed later, beginning with a few express connections, but even at this writing CCT (Cobb County Transit) remains separate from MARTA.

Our cafeteria patrons included a couple of notable black leaders, Andy Young and Julian Bond, but conservative whites outnumber blacks by a wide margin. Congressman Larry McDonald (later killed when KAL 007 was shot down by Russian interceptors) and his family dined there when he was in town, and his parents ate dinner with us several times a week.  J.B. Stoner, a famous segregationist later convicted of bombing black churches, came in a few times. He walked with a conspicuous limp and ate in the back of the dining room, preferring to stay as much alone as possible in a public place. Lester Maddox and his wife Virginia were regular customers, and I remember him handing out flyers on the MLK holiday reminding people of the birthday of Robert E. Lee. (January 19). He remained an unrepentant segregationist the rest of his life, traveling out of his way to eat in my cafeteria in Smyrna, I suspect because so many of my customers knew him from his days at his restaurant in Atlanta, the Pickrick.

I regret amending these anecdotes to my MLK Day recollections, but they are an important piece of the history of segregation that made his movement necessary. And they must not be forgotten.

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