My meeting with Dr Martin Luther King is taken from memory. I’ve told this story again and again over the years. The words that I attribute to him are approximate in most cases. I don’t know how much memory has altered the actual encounter but this is at heart what happened. I admired this man like no other who I’ve ever met. Those forty-five or so minutes of talking with him changed my life forever. When he was gunned down in Selma Alabama, I cried because in my view he was the embodiment of courage, of total ethical commitment, a peaceful warrior: one of the finest men of the Twentieth Century. King was inspiration. He’d become a friend in my heart. With those gun shots, all of that had been ripped away and it was a deep loss.
Scuba diving off the coast of Kauai Hawaii consumed much of my time back in the early ‘60s. It was on a Saturday morning, 1961 when Bob Elliott, Fox, a lanky black guy out of The Bronx and I climbed into the old ’48 Studebaker that we shared and headed out to the far side of the island, to Hanalei for a day of scuba diving. We cruised along talking, when ahead there was a Negro standing beside the road. (In ’61, Blacks were "Negroes" or "******s." Racism was heavy.) Fox called out, "Hey, let’s pick him up?"
Bob pulled off the road just ahead of him. Gravel crunched beneath the tires and then it was quiet. The dark stranger came up to the car. He looked in and asked, "How far you going?"
Bob looked over and said, "Up to the Hanalei side. Going diving. Where you headed?"
"Lihue," he replied. His voice was soft and somewhat cautious.
Fox said, "Come on, get in. We’ll take ya." Fox was serious which was unusual for him, as he was one of those people whose every sentence seemed filled with humor. He wanted to go back to The Bronx and get himself a bar and call it The Fox Hole. That was his dream. His humor was riveting. Something had changed.
The front seat was too crowded with Bob, Fox and loose gear but in the backseat, beside me, there was space for him to squeeze in. Fox slipped out of the car and gave him room. He climbed in and settled beside me. He was dressed in brown pants and a flowered shirt. Once he’d settled into the seat, I noticed that he held an eight and a half by eleven inch sized envelope. He laid it on his lap and looked straight ahead.
Bob pulled back onto the two lane road and all was quiet. My curiosity about that envelope got the best of me and so I slipped a casual look at it. Printed in black ink, it read, "Dr Martin Luther King, Jr." There was an address in Lihue.
Instantly, I remembered reading in the Garden Island News about such a person. The portrayal in the articles was of a "crazy" black man, a Negro, trying to raise money for something called the Southern Christian Leadership Fund. According to these articles, he sat fasting before the Lihue’s City Hall. Fasting was unheard of in those days and it seemed to many to be an odd behavior. In the last article I’d read, he had been accused of stealing a car but then the court finally ruled that his friend had loaned the car to him and he was released from custody. More had been published in the newspaper but my mind swam, searching for something to say because my curiosity ran wild. I turned toward him and asked, "Are you Doctor King, the guy we’ve read about in the paper?’
He turned, smiled and said, "Yes, I am."
My mind was flooded with questions. I asked, "What’re these news stories we’ve been reading about you?"
He chuckled and said, "Well, you know, they take everything out of context."
"They talked about something happening in the South and you’re trying to…."
He spoke. He seemed to understand that we knew nearly nothing about anything of his past save for what we had read in the newspaper. He talked about Birmingham Jail, talked about his mission, about the oppression of black people in the South, about how the voting system actively denied Negroes equal voting rights, began to tell stories but his voice was not in the casual, cautious manner as it had been before. It was firm. It was as though he gave a speech. He paused every-so-often and let his words sink in. Later I learned that this was his public voice.
"Why did you come to Hawaii?" I asked.
"To raise money for the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Fund. I thought Hawaii would be a good place because it seemed to be the most racially integrated part of the country and that they would understand. I was wrong."
Every so often, Bob and Fox shot a comment or a question over the seat. Something seemed to be coming together in my mind. Innocently, I asked, "What’s the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Fund?"
I don’t recall everything that he said but as he spoke, I reacted. His words, his thoughts, his message carried understanding into my heart. It was like relevant disjointed pieces of my past came together as a whole. Memory rambled through me.
I remembered as a high school student, I’d worked at Carroll’s Truck Stop. One late afternoon an old 16-wheeler big rig rolled in. The driver climbed down, ordered his fuel and went over to the drive-in restaurant. George and I checked out the truck and found that two of the tires were in serious need of replacement. George told me to go on over to the drive-in café and let him know because the tire shop was closing in the next hour and we had just enough time to replace them.
I walked on over, sat down with him in his booth and told him the story of his tires. He was well aware of the situation but said that he couldn’t do anything about it. I asked whether he had an account and he did but the old truck had already eaten it up and his boss back in Texas could not authorize additional money. That was odd. He went on and told me about coming from a small Texas town ruled by a white family. I remember thinking, "Families can’t rule. This is a free country. Everyone has freedom." I doubted that he told me the truth. He went on and said that the family allowed black people – he called them "******s" – to rise as high as a truck washer. That was the first rung on the ladder. That’s all they could do. I imagined an old Negro with a family living in poverty.
I couldn’t believe what I heard but then again as King spoke, lose parts of my past began to coalesce. As his monologue continued, pausing here, pausing there to make a point, I remembered John Robinson telling me about his family who ruled Nihau Island just off the coast of Kauai. In 1960 his family had decided to vote for Richard Nixon instead of John Kennedy. His family determined that all of the people on Nihau would vote for Nixon and if anyone failed, they would be exiled from their home. That dictum was final. One hundred percent of the Island voted for Richard Nixon. They had no choice. John objected to his family and lost a sizable inheritance.
A white family in Texas determined that Negroes could not socially move very high. They were not free. And here was this black man from the South sitting beside me, telling us his story of freedom for black people, for all people. I realized that people could not be as free as I felt was an inalienable right. It seemed to me that all of this was an atrocity in the United States of America. Never could they become truck drivers or dispatchers or anything more. The Robinson family ruled and determined how people would live and what they would believe. My heart said that all of this was anti-American. None of it fit within the image of what I believed to be the way that the United States really worked. Weren’t our ideals reality? "It is a free country," I tried to tell myself but I realized that what I’d heard from King was the solemn truth. I could not believe that my country actually worked that way and yet King made sense. He put together important pieces of my mind and my heart but never knew what was happening there in that old car headed for Lihue.
Through those questions and King’s dialogue, Fox and Bob dropped in with comments. Fox kept nodding and affirming King’s words because I assumed that somewhere in his past, he knew the ugly whip of racism. When we finally drove into Lihue, we turned up toward the Hanalei side chattering about scuba diving when King leaned over the seat to Bob and said, "This is where I get off."
Bob pulled to the roadside and Fox made room for him to get out. King began to walk away but then turned back and came up to the car. Fox’s window was open and King put his head through and said, "God bless you my sons." He turned and walked up the gravel driveway toward his friend’s house. I began to pay attention to Dr. Martin Luther King as he began to make news around the world leading peace marches, standing up to the hoard of racism that blatantly flourished in the United States.
I returned to the mainland and enrolled in college. I wanted to go down into the South to help with the changes that were taking place because I knew that King was there and his Civil Rights Movement was ethically important. I paid attention, soaking in everything I could possibly take in. A few years later, I found myself involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Everything that had transpired between our meeting along the road on Kauai and there at the college, had transformed me. It was a ripe time for my heart to grow. Voter Rights registration. There were hundreds of thousands of young white, northern students helping. And in Mississippi white people executed them. It must have been around ’62 or maybe early ‘63 when Martin Luther King was to speak at San Jose City College. I told my friend that we needed to go and see him. I told her the story of picking up Dr. Martin Luther King as he hitchhiked to Lihue. I don’t think she believed me until later.
King spoke that night and I listened. Afterward, I told my friend that we needed to go up to the stage and shake hands with him. She didn’t want to go but I just began heading through the masses of people and she followed. We worked our way up to the high platform stage. King ranged along through the people shaking hands, commenting here and there, coming closer and closer and then, as I looked up, lifting my hand for a shake, he stopped. "I remember," he said. "You guys picked me up in Hawaii. On Kauai."
We talked for a bit and I told him how much I admired his movement and what I wanted to do. He was smiling and I sensed he was very happy. He said, "Just give us your spiritual support. Do what you can and I will know by the outcome."
That was it. He moved on through the crowd. He was shot. My tears streaked my face but years before my work for peace had begun and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was responsible.
This message has been edited by mbmoonthang on Jan 16, 2006 11:35 AM