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Out of the Woods / A double commemoration: King and Obama

Published 1:41 pm, Thursday, January 17, 2013

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  • Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1967 file photo. Photo: Blair Pittman, Houston Chronicle / Houston Chronicle
    Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1967 file photo. Photo: Blair Pittman, Houston Chronicle

 

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It is altogether fitting and appropriate that the federal holiday commemorating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be he held next Monday, Jan. 21 -- the same day that Barack Obama, America's first black president, will be sworn in to a second term.

The symbolism is both poignant and historic. President Obama is adding an extra touch to this generations-old inaugural tradition by taking the oath of office with his hand on not one but two bibles -- one that was owned by Abraham Lincoln, the other by King. Obama was inspired by both men, whose miniature busts are in front of him atop his desk in the Oval Office.

The inclusion of King's bible is especially notable, since it recalls the civil rights leader's famous "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial. Obama will be facing the memorial as he takes the oath.

King has made an indelible mark on world history, as well as Westport's history. He brought the civil rights issue to our town on May 22, 1964, when he spoke at Temple Israel on the topic of "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." King compared the people of his time to Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," who, in Irving's story, slept 20 years during an American Revolution. "The most striking thing," King told his audience, "is not that he slept 20 years but that he slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today. We must support the social movement of the Negro."

Four years later, on April 22, 1968, some 700 King supporters gathered on the lawn of the Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport to pay tribute to the then fallen leader. From there, the crowd proceeded to Jesup Green and the service concluded with Westport resident Leroy Ellis, himself one of few blacks then living in town, singing "We Shall Overcome."

Anyone who knew Martin Luther King looked up to him as a genuine man of peace, a nonviolent dissenter, a charismatic figure who stirred the hearts and the imaginations of millions of his followers with his inspiring oratory, which he delivered in an emotional cadence both poetic and soulful. He was, indeed, a giant among leaders in the 20th century.

I had the privilege of speaking one-on-one with King in an exclusive one-hour interview in his suite at the New York Hilton on Aug. 30, 1965. I was then a reporter for The New York World-Telegram & Sun. My beat was poverty and the civil rights movement. I can say without reservation that my interview with King was the most inspiring experience of my 60-year career as a journalist.

He struck me as a man much milder and humble in person than he appeared to be in public. His stocky frame stood slightly bent over as he pointed to a chair for his visitor and said softly, with a friendly smile: "Please have a seat." We were alone. No handlers, no entourage. He told me he liked to be interviewed that way. We had a wide-ranging talk during which I spontaneously asked him, as a result of that summer's race riots across the country, "Would you be willing to ask President Johnson to tour the northern ghettos with you?"

Without hesitation, he replied enthusiastically: "Certainly." That was the most animated I saw him during our conversation.

And when he told me -- on the record -- that his purpose in coming to New York was to launch a nationwide campaign to bring his nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Movement to the North, I realized why he was so enthusiastic about the idea of having the president join him on a nationwide tour.

The next day my paper ran the story on six columns across the top of the front page with the headline, "KING BIDS JOHNSON TOUR GHETTOS." The following morning, the New York Times printed a story reiterating what we had reported. When asked by the Times reporter where he had gotten the idea, he credited my newspaper and me by name. This was a typical example of his true humility.

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, King was felled by an assassin's bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. He was born on Jan. 15, 1929. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his 84th birthday this year.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at woodyklein12@gmail.com.