I almost met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once.
I belonged to the Luther League at my church in Miami back in the early 1960s. There was going to be a national Luther League conference in Miami Beach, and two kids from the group were chosen to be delegates. I was the alternate – hence the “almost.”
A featured speaker was a young minister from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Frankly, I barely knew who King was at the time, but I picked up my two friends after the conference and listened to their excited conversation about the inspirational civil rights preacher they had just heard.
Back in those days, the polite words were Negro or colored. Nobody used or even knew the term African-American. Frankly, you mostly heard the impolite word. One of my friends said the message this amazing man with a captivating voice delivered was the most exciting, provoking, peaceful and revolutionary thing he had ever heard. And they were said by a Negro man in Miami Beach!
You have to consider the context of time and place. That was right about the time when segregation laws were changing in Miami. Blacks could work in Miami Beach but could not stay in a hotel there nor swim at the beaches. If they wanted to go for a dip, they’d have to head to Virginia Key beach, the “colored only” designated swim spot. Having lived in New York City as a little kid, I didn’t get it, but it was the reality around me.
My high school was located in a predominately black section of the city, but most kids from the immediate neighborhood had to be bused to the “colored” high school.
Our swim team practiced at a public pool nearby, and a peaceful sit-in took place one year. The group was let in to swim, breaking the color barrier finally and forever there. The father of one girl threatened to keep her from the pool until it had been drained and scrubbed – something which, of course, was never going to happen. To her credit, she defied her father and returned to practice on schedule.
There was a certain irony to segregation in Miami in the early ’60s. Elementary schools were integrated, but if you were black, you went to a separate-but-in- no-way-equal high school. Yet at my allegedly lily-white high school there were a growing number of Cuban refugees, several of whom were mixed race. I remember one boy in my class whose last name was Quomoyug, and he was clearly Alaskan native. So, if you’ve got an exotic last name or a Hispanic last name, you’re good to go – but not if you’re a kid from the neighborhood with black skin.
But returning to King in Miami Beach, addressing a bunch of white Lutheran teenagers. Like so many things he did in his life, his just being there was a statement all by itself. It was courageous, dignified, elegant and fiery.
I can still remember the chatter in the car as we drove across the causeway back into Miami. The two delegates were repeating things they had heard King say, and they were so impressed and energized. Not everyone at the conference was so moved, of course, and when King took questions, he got some tough ones.
One person apparently challenged King with the proposition that the mingling of races in schools, hotels, restaurants and such would surely lead to intermarriage, and then where would we be? My friends reported that King answered thoughtfully, but in his answer he got to the issues of humanity he was preaching about – integration was about equal rights for all Americans. And to the specific question he added: “What I want is to be your brother, not your brother-in-law.”
A few years later when I was a very young and green reporter for the now defunct Miami News, I got a brief introduction to and had a very short conversation with Roy Wilkins, NAACP’s executive director, who had testified before a platform hearing at the 1968 Republican National Convention. I was pretty awed. It was right there in Miami Beach.
I think back to the differences between King and Wilkins appearing in Miami Beach. I don’t know where Wilkins stayed, but I like to think it was in one of those fancy Collins Avenue hotels that had become open to him. That would have been nice. I don’t know where King stayed when he was in town some six years earlier, but it sure wasn’t there.
And how about this irony – King didn’t, couldn’t, attend the 1968 GOP Convention in the newly integrated Miami Beach. He had been assassinated earlier that year.