What Would Martin Say?
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Clarence Jones
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061253201
Martin Luther King was coming to meet me. At my home. It would be social, but not a social visit. Like Uncle Sam in those recruiting posters, Dr. King wanted to enlist me in his war. But I had already become a conscientious objector.
It was a long-ago time and yet never long enough. It was a time when not the few but the many believed—as surely as they believed that gravity makes things fall—in the racial superiority of the white race. It was a time when more than a few agreed that because man is made in God's image and God isn't black, the Negro is therefore not a man. It was a time when far more than many insisted that the law needed to separate blacks from whites not only today but tomorrow and forever.
It was, in short, a time when the time was ripe for one of those most rare movements in history, a movement whose goals and aims were as righteous as they were unambiguously good.
It also happened to be the time when I was happily living in a scenic white suburb of Los Angeles in a pleasant ranch-style contemporary with my attractive white wife and, less than a year out of law school, working as an entertainment lawyer at a small Beverly Hills firm where I hoped someday to make partner and enjoy all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining—i.e., a lavish salary and everything it could buy. Including the freedom to never again worry about how much I had left in my pocket.
I'd had those plans (born of that worry) since that day as a boy when I learned that my beloved parents—live-in domestics—would have to send their only child away to be raised by others. And now that I had a wife and baby daughter with a second child on the way, I felt a moral obligation to be there for them, both physically and financially. It was, perhaps, a sense of duty best appreciated by those who'd been raised by folks other than their parents. The Catholic nuns in that boarding school run by the Order of the Sacred Heart in Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania, taught me well, and my success reflected that. But I would always have a hole where my parents hadn't been, and a hole wasn't what I wanted for my children.
That said, unless you were a first-degree bigot, it was impossible not to admire the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And impossible not to notice that he was the right man at the right time. His mission to achieve full civil rights for American Negroes had made him one of the most famous and, even in those days, celebrated men in the United States. He'd actually been on the cover of Time after leading the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, begun by Rosa Parks, which eventually led to the Supreme Court's ruling that outlawed segregation on municipal buses. So it was a big deal that he was coming to my house and coming to see me personally and coming to appeal to my conscience and coming to persuade me that I was not, at present, putting my talents to their highest and best use.
But big deal or not, God himself couldn't have persuaded this Negro to give up the future, even for something bigger than himself.
Anyway, that's what I insisted to my wife as she set out a few refreshments before our guest arrived.Hearing the words, she stopped for a moment and shook her head. Which got my attention. In the five years and counting of our marriage, she'd never looked at me so pitiably, as though she'd married the wrong man.
The phone had rung several days before—Hubert Delaney, calling from New York. I'd gotten to know Hubert, a prominent Negro lawyer and former judge, during my college days at Columbia, when I was a member of the school's NAACP Youth Council. He'd generously written a letter of recommendation to Boston University Law School on my behalf when I decided to pursue the law, and I have no doubt that whatever he said helped get me in. But not for that reason alone did I owe him.
Even so, when he told me he thought I'd be a good and valuable addition to the legal team he was heading in Alabama to defend Dr. King against preposterous charges of tax evasion—that is, underreporting his income in 1956 and 1958 through the appropriation of donations to the Montgomery bus boycott—I told him no. And not because I didn't want to spend several weeks in Montgomery (though I didn't), acting essentially as a law clerk for several eminent attorneys from the North, writing motions and memoranda, researching case law, and being a legal gofer. No, I didn't want to do that because, well, I didn't want to do that. I wanted to stay where I was and continue doing what I was doing—making money and building my future.
With disappointment in his voice, Hubert thanked me and that was that—or so I thought until the next day, when Dr. King's personal secretary from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called to say that the man was going to be in Los Angeles over the weekend, delivering the keynote address at the World Affairs Council dinner Saturday night, and would it be possible for him to stop by the house for a brief chat on Friday night after dinner. Just to say hello.
I laughed, marveling that the judge hadn't given up. What was I supposed to say? No?
And so came the knock on the door.
There stood a man of medium stature, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, skinny tie, and fedora.
"How do you do?" he said. "I'm Martin."
Next to him was a man similarly dressed, the Reverend Bernard Lee, King's aide-de-camp.
We shook hands and I invited them in. King first noticed how the house had been built around an existing tree that would've dominated the living room if not for the hundreds of potted plants, courtesy of my wife's green thumb. Then he glanced up at the place where a portion of the roof had been retracted for the night—a nice architectural touch that paid off whenever the stars were alive in the sky, as they were then—and nodded in a way that said I'd done well for myself.