Out of the Woods / Recalling MLK's dream nearly a half-century later
Published 3:50 pm, Tuesday, August 30, 2011
It was exactly 46 years ago yesterday -- Aug. 30, 1965 -- that I spent an hour alone interviewing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in a mid-town suite at the New York Hilton. I was alone when I knocked on his door.
"Please come in," he said softly as he gently shook my hand. "I am pleased that your newspaper is interested in my visit to New York." He was in a pleasant mood, a little distant, calm, low-key -- a far cry from the inspiring, emotional orator we all knew on the stump. He was a much milder man in private.
During our time together, the then 36-year-old minister explained in detail that he was hoping to extend his non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference into northern cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles -- all across the country.
"The country's antipoverty program," he said, "should be greatly expanded or it may become just another glorified welfare program to preserve poverty instead of eliminating it."
He was referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty," a multi-billion-dollar effort that had shown signs of success in Harlem and other ghettos, but was still in its infancy. Dr. King conceded that recent riots in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere in 1965 had hurt his movement and "something is needed to give it a lift."
At that point, I asked: "Do you think that President Johnson should tour the ghettos?"
He paused, and said: "I think that such a tour would bring real hope to the Negroes in America. It would have a tremendous psychological value."
"Would you be willing to go on record publicly asking President Johnson to take such a tour, perhaps with you?" I asked.
"Certainly," he replied with a serious look on his face.
The next day, Aug. 31, 1965, my newspaper, the New York World-Telegram & Sun, ran a six-column headline on the top of page 1: "KING BIDS JOHNSON TOUR GHETTOS."
That same day, in an effort to confirm my story, The New York Times telephoned Dr. King in Atlanta and published a short story under a headline: "PRESIDENT IS URGED TO TOUR GHETTOS." The Times story quoted King: "It would be a marvelous thing if he makes such a tour. It would provide a release for alienation and frustration most Negroes now feel."
The story also reported that, when asked where he got the idea, Dr. King, in fact, said that I had suggested it to him and he referred to me by name and newspaper in his quote. I must admit [with some immodesty] that I was enormously flattered at the time by King's candor.
As it turned out, after an exchange of calls between me and Johnson's press secretary, they could not find a time in the president's schedule for such a tour, I was told, and the matter was dropped. At least I tried, I thought at the time.
Three months later, on Sunday, Nov. 14, 1965, I was sitting in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem awaiting the minister, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, a congressman, and his guest speaker of that day, Dr. King. I had changed jobs and was working for WCBS-TV.
Powell had agreed to permit Dr. King to share his pulpit to launch a fundraising drive for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King had told me that he derived about 25 percent of his organization's annual $1 million budget from New Yorkers, white and black.
Powell spoke first. He quickly moved his congregation to shouting and clapping their hands while shouting "Amen" all the while. He was a charismatic speaker, and his "brothers and sisters" loved the rhythm of his voice. It was a hard act for anyone to follow.
But King wasn't just another preacher. He started slowly, almost in a whisper. Gradually, carefully, and with restraint, he built up his message, his deep resonant voice rising in pitch and tone and quickening in tempo. Finally, he had his audience cheering with a mass outpouring of emotion as he hit his final cadence. He received a standing ovation.
King left as quietly as he had arrived. I left the church with my camera crew. I went back to my typewriter to write a brief two-minute script I would read that night. I spoke: "Dr. Martin Luther King plans to expand his non-violent movement into at least 10 northern cities, including New York," my script began. "This was the heart of a spiritual message he delivered to his receptive audience."
That was the last time I ever saw Dr. King.
For the historical record, I learned after I had moved to Westport in 1968 that Dr. King preached here at Temple Israel to a full house on Friday evening, May 22, 1964. He spoke on the topic "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," comparing the people of his time to Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle who, in Irving's story, slept though a revolution.
That was a memorable day in Westport, just as it was for those parishioners in Harlem a year later. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his struggle for peace between the races in America -- a struggle that has yet to be fully realized. He was, in the eyes of many, one of the greatest men of our country in the 20th Century. He inspired millions, black and white alike, before he was slain by an assassin's bullet at the age of 39, on April 4, 1968.
Last Sunday, Aug. 28, marked the 48th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 march on Washington, a history-making event at which hundreds of thousands of Americans of all colors and religions gathered to pay honor to the cause of the elimination of racism, poverty, and the war in Vietnam.
A memorial ceremony, at which President Barack Obama was scheduled to speak, was postponed because of the storm.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.