Dr. King’s Dinner


After what seemed like hours, he and his right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy, appeared. Later we found out that Wilson Baker had kept them until last, hoping they would decide not to be arrested after all. We greeted Dr. King with applause, expecting something like a resumption of the mass meeting at Brown Chapel. But Dr. King told us that he was feeling hoarse and would rather not preach, and he suggested we hold a “Quaker-type” meeting instead. Everyone would speak as the spirit moved, and he would listen along with the rest. This was the first such meeting I ever took part in, and it was like none of the thousand-plus Friends gatherings I have attended since. It was, for one thing, much noisier. The spirit not only moved some of us to preach that afternoon; it also moved us to sing, both freedom songs I knew and gospel hymns I didn’t. Being in jail lent a special intensity to our voices, and those of us pressed up against the walls soon found that if we slapped them in rhythm, they resounded like muffled calypso drums. When enough of us did it, the whole floor began to vibrate. Through the walls we soon heard an answering chorus from the other end of the third floor, where the women were being held. How I wish someone had recorded us that day.

Our meeting went on longer than any regular Quaker session, two or three hours, it seemed. Finally we sank into a happy, exhausted disorder. Looking up, I noticed that the windows above us had been fogged over by our lusty exhalations.

As the group relaxed, Dr. King began moving along the bars at the edge of the day room, speaking through them to the regular county prisoners in their cells. He was making these rounds when there was a clanging at the far end of the cell block and the heavy barred door suddenly rolled back a few feet. We turned at the noise and recognized Sheriff Clark’s grim visage. His eyes swept over the group and then he pointed and called out, “You, King. Abernathy. Come over here.” He motioned to another staff worker. Then he pointed at me.

All at once I felt cold. It was safe in that crowded day room. Where were we going now? We all had heard our share of stories of people who disappeared forever from Southern jails.

In the hallway the sheriff said gruffly, “Follow me.” We did, down the stairs to a cell in the city jail. There were two sets of steel bunk beds in it and another small window up high. The door rattled shut behind us.

Then I understood. Clark was removing the leadership from the group upstairs, isolating the “professional agitators” in the hope of maintaining control over the rest. The realization made me smile; it was a compliment to be included with the leaders.

Dr. King soon lay down on one of the bunks and dozed off. I was too excited to follow his example. I was also hungry: I hadn’t eaten much breakfast, the march and waiting had taken hours, and no one had brought lunch to our shouting, singing crowd upstairs. In fact I was starved. Would our jailers bring us anything here?

Collards might be very nutritious, but I hadn’t liked them much. Now they set my mouth to watering.

After another hour or so, with the cell dim in the dusk, a door banged, lights went on, and metallic wheels squealed. A pungent aroma floated toward us as a voice called, “Dr. King! Dr. King! Dinner for Dr. King!”

A trusty appeared, a dark specter in kitchen whites pushing a cart. I identified the aroma—collard greens. A single plate, piled with a mound of them, sat in the center of the cart. I had never heard of, never mind eaten, collard greens before coming to the South a few months earlier. Their smell is strong, the taste faintly bitter, although it mellows somewhat after long simmering with chunks of fatback pork and salt. Collards were said to be very nutritious, but I had not liked them much. Now they set my mouth to watering.

I heard stirring in the bunks. Dr. King came past and reached through the bars to shake the trusty’s hand. “How you doin’?” he asked. “What you got there?”

I tuned out their quiet banter. My entire attention was drawn to that steaming plate. There was only one, and it was meant for Dr. King. I reflected on this melancholy fact, then told myself sternly to buck up. So what if I was hungry, even ravenous? I was young, relatively strong, temporarily out of action, and in any case expendable. I could wait.

My gaze wandered back to the trusty’s face. Consternation was now woven into its creases, and I began to listen again as Dr. King said, “—and that, my friend, is why I cannot eat your greens. I’m sorry.”

I peered at Dr. King. Was he sick? What had I missed? The trusty came to my rescue.

“What say?” he murmured, as if he hadn’t heard it either.

Dr. King began to explain. The exact words are gone now, but the substance is as clear as if it were yesterday.

“You see,” Dr. King said, “not long after I got involved in the movement” (he always said the word as if it had three syllables) “I had the opportunity, with the help of the Quakers, to visit India and study the work of Mahatma Gandhi, who had freed his country from British rule through campaigns of nonviolent resistance.”

The trusty frowned. I had the distinct impression he had no idea who Mahatma Gandhi was, but then I barely did myself.