Dr. King’s Dinner


“And we found that Gandhi had gone to jail many times, sometimes spending long periods in prison with his followers. After he had been in prison a few times, Gandhi decided it was important to make that time count. Imprisonment would be for him a time of religious retreat, with a regular routine of spiritual meditation, to free and purify his spirit while he worked to free and purify his country.”

Dr. King spread his hands out between the bars, gesturing as if in a pulpit. “I was very moved by what I learned in India,” he said, “and when Dr. Abernathy and I realized that we were likely to face arrest and jail repeatedly in our own struggle here, we agreed that we would follow Gandhi’s example to the extent that we were able.

“Long ago,” Dr. King continued, and it sounded as if he were winding toward some punch line, “Dr. Abernathy and I resolved that whenever we went to jail, we too would make our prison sentences times of spiritual retreat. And to put ourselves into the proper frame of mind, we have always made it our practice that for the first two days that we are in jail, we will fast. That, my friend, is why I am unable to eat your greens.”

“You mean—” croaked the trusty. Much of the rest of the speech may have gone over his head, but this last was sinking in.

Dr. King nodded. The trusty looked at Abernathy, who had moved to Dr. King’s elbow. Abernathy smiled apologetically but shook his head also. The trusty turned toward the other staffer, who had stood silent through this whole exchange. His head shook too.

The trusty stood there for a moment without a clue as to what to do next. Then he looked at me.

I have always thought that the key to the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan is where it says of the traveler who found the robbery victim wounded and abandoned that “his heart was moved with compassion.” When I saw the sense of loss and confusion on the trusty’s face, my heart was moved with compassion.

It was easy to imagine what kind of life this man had. I guessed he was probably a drunk or petty thief, or some combination of the two. Likely he had no job. This was his bleak present and dreary future: helping prepare Spartan prison fare for men slightly more wretched than himself. And then today, like some breath of the divine, came the modern Moses, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why wouldn’t he want to do something for this apparition? He had made Dr. King a plate of greens. And now Dr. King had gently but firmly refused it.

What were homilies about Gandhi compared with this?

“Um,” I said, “you know, I’m really kind of new to this nonviolence business. So I—well, I haven’t made any vows about fasting or anything like that.”

The trusty blinked.

“What I mean is,” I said, “if it’s all right with you and Dr. King, well, I guess I’d be willing to eat your greens.”

The trusty’s gaze shifted questioningly to Dr. King. Mine followed. We both saw Dr. King give a slight nod and shrug. The trusty slowly picked up the plate, opened the narrow slot in the door, and slid it through.

I half turned away from the others, all too conscious of their eyes on me, and jabbed a fork into the heaped greens. But the tines sank only half an inch before sticking in something firmer. Suspicion welled up. Was something sinister hidden in the chlorophyll? I scraped the collards to one side. There, beneath the facade of dull green, was not some toxin but meat, thick slices of the finest country ham. My mind raced as I wolfed the food down. This could not possibly be the everyday menu in this establishment. The arrangement of greens, which had seemed so random, suddenly took on an aspect of art.

What a dinner I had that night!

I was bailed out of jail late the following morning. Dr. King stayed for several more days. I don’t know whether the trusty cooked for him again.

The Snub