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My Only Personal Experience with Dr. Martin Luther King

posted Apr 11, 2011, 7:14 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated Apr 27, 2011, 8:47 PM ]

This past April 4 reminded me of my only personal experience with Dr. Martin Luther King. In October 1962 I was a freshman at Harvard and I noticed a poster announcing that he would give a lecture at Sanders Theater, sponsored by the Law School. I hardly knew who he was, but my own college career had begun the same year as did James Meredith's. My first week of classes all the talk in the dining halls was about the riots at the University of Mississippi where 2 persons died and many were injured during protests against Meredith's admission and his attempt -- ultimately successful -- to attend classes. I can't recall if King was interviewed in connection with any of those events. But his named began to pop up in discussions among the better informed students.

So, on a Friday evening (I think) I wandered over to the theater, which was more than 2/3 full, holding perhaps 1,000 people. A couple of Law School profs made brief introductory comments and the then rather young MLK stepped up to the mic. At first I was disappointed. Expecting soaring moral rhetoric and grand phrases, instead I was listening to detailed practical talk about how to choose targets for protest where the chances of winning a victory were the greatest, how important it was to know about the general attitudes of particular federal judges; to prepare enough bail money; to know something about the highest police officials; to pick the particular segregation statutes that would lend themselves to the broadest court rulings rather than small, narrow ones. Gradually it dawned on me that most of those in attendance were students in the law school classes of the two professors and that King was earning his speaker's fee by discussing issues the profs had set before him. Now, almost 49 years later, I realize that King also knew his mostly northern liberal audience did not need or want to hear grand moral eloquence: as it turned out, many of the students were already active in SNCC -- the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or perhaps one of the local college groups that evolved into SNCC). King was explaining important matters to them along with the law school classes.

The first time I read Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? last fall in Ithaca I was reminded of my only time to hear Dr. King in person back then. The book is such a wonderful combination of insistent moral voice on the one part, social science thinking on another, and thoughts about how to use the system's "levers of power" or, when necessary, to go beyond those levers, to make meaningful advances in the struggle to overcome racism and other forms of inequality and oppression. It is an honor to be able to participate in the MLKing Community Build and other local Ithaca and Tompkins County activities in support of social justice. I will never again be able to see King speak in person but his writings live on and continue to inform as well as to inspire me.

Dick Franke, Ecovillage at Ithaca.