Have there been events in your life that were so powerful you knew something changed for you, even if at the time you didn’t understand what or how? If I made a list of such events Martin Luther King Jr.’s name would appear prominently. I never shook hands with him but he was an uncomfortable presence in my life from when I was seventeen to the present, and that presence didn’t cease with his death. Over the next few days I want to share some of those events and hope that some of you will be prompted to share yours. If these memories really are “precious,” they won’t mire us in our pasts but will point the way to possibilities in our presents.
I was in my first year of college on December 1, 1955 when seven hundred miles away, a seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. The arrest set in motion a series of events that catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I had become accustomed to hearing the young pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church called a “Communist,” both by the people around me and in the Fort Worth and Dallas newspapers.
The boycott was continuing beyond public expectations. The voices became shriller and threats more frequent. Letters to the editor suggested that what was needed in Montgomery was a “noose solution” for Dr. King.
My college roommate and I were hitchhiking back to Fort Worth after a weekend at home in Iowa Park. The wind was icy and there weren’t many cars on old highway 287 south of Henrietta. We were chilled to the bone when an old black truck pulled over to the side of the road ahead of us. We raced up to the door and were surprised to see an elderly black man behind the wheel. I didn’t weigh much but was tall; my friend Bob was a tackle who would have made two of me.
“You boys need a ride?” he asked.
“Yes Sir, we’re on our way back to Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth where we go to school,” I quickly replied hoping that might put him at ease and not decide that he had made a terrible mistake stopping and drive off without us.
“I’m goin’ to within a few blocks of the college,” he said. “I’ll drop you off.”
We wedged into the bench seat of the small truck. I straddled the gear shift. This was closer than I had ever been to a black person.
He asked us what we were studying. We told him we were preparing to become ministers. He told us about the church he attended just off Rosedale. I knew the area, a black section not far from the college.
Since he said he was Baptist and King was too, I asked him about the pastor.
“I’ve never met him,” the old man said, “but I have friends who are members of his church.”
“Do you think he’s a ‘Communist,’ like everybody says,” I asked.
His eyes twinkled as he replied, “He’s about as much a ‘Communist’ as Jesus was.”
The more we drove and talked, the more I was in awe of this old man who wasn’t afraid to pick up a couple of scruffy-looking white guys on the highway and who also wasn’t afraid to speak to us honestly.
The two hours we chugged to Fort Worth passed quickly. When he pulled up in front of the Administration building to let us off, I reached into my bag on the floor and pulled out the cherry pie my mother had baked that morning and handed it to him.
“Thank you,” he said. “Why don’t you come down to worship at my church sometime? We have services on Sunday night.”
“We will,” I said. And the next Sunday night we did.
On December 5, 1955, Dr. King addressed the first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Mass Meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church:
“You know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression ... If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. And if we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The old man who gave us a ride introduced me to a fearless hospitality I didn’t know existed and, from seven hundred miles away, to a man who would be forever calling me out of complacency. The struggle for me was just beginning.