Skip to main content

My Brush With History

Dr. King’s Dinner

June 2024
9min read

One of my early assignments as a rookie civil rights worker was to stay close to Dr. King when we filed through the streets of Selma, Alabama. Three or four of us shared this duty, and together we kept him pretty much surrounded, blocking the aim of any sniper who might be crouched on a nearby rooftop.

I had arrived in Selma less than a month before, white and fresh from college in Colorado. Hundreds of us were set to march that day, February 1,1965. Our ostensible destination was the Dallas County Courthouse downtown, to renew a protest against the exclusion of almost all of the county’s black citizens from the voting rolls. But no one expected to get that far; everybody knew we wanted to provoke arrests.

After barely nibbling breakfast, afraid and exhilarated at the same time, I donned my movement uniform: stiff new denim overalls, a matching jacket, and, incongruously, a yarmulke. One of Dr. King’s staffers, who understood how important the support of Jewish groups was to the movement, had distributed them to us. Properly decked out, I headed across town to the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Red brick with two squat steeples, Brown Chapel sat on Sylvan Street in the middle of the George Washington Carver Homes, Selma’s neat, generally well-kept black housing project. People were standing around on the steps, and, inside, the benches were full. There was a “mass meeting” that morning to get everybody into the right frame of mind for the day’s events. The elements were basic and familiar: preaching, praying, singing, clapping. But in those days in that place the combination was unforgettable and overwhelming.

After a concluding prayer and a round of “We Shall Overcome,” we lined up outside, watching our breath in the chilly morning air, and then stepped off, clapping and singing, up Sylvan Street toward the courthouse nine blocks away.

I took my place near Dr. King at the head of the column. We hadn’t gone far before we were stopped by a man in a dark business suit and a fedora hat, standing in the middle of the street with his hands in his pockets. This was Wilson Baker, Selma’s public safety director. Baker was a good and smart man, a disciple of Police Chief Laurie Pritchett of Albany, Georgia. Pritchett had outmaneuvered a vigorous protest campaign in Albany three years earlier by figuring out how to handle the pack of Yankee reporters that showed up wherever Dr. King did. Coming into a Southern town with cameras, microphones, and notebooks, they expected to see crude redneck cops and sheriffs beating up peaceable, noble Negroes. Pritchett spoke politely and made sure his policemen arrested the marchers quietly and without fanfare. The Yankee reporters soon became bored and moved on.

Baker had Pritchett’s strategy down cold. If King was determined to get arrested, Baker would accommodate him, but he would also make sure that the reporters saw nothing more exciting than a crowd of people milling around outside the back entrance to City Hall.

For all his outward composure, however, Baker was not in complete control of the situation in Selma. In particular he couldn’t afford to let us get past him to the courthouse, where the Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, was waiting.

Sheriff Clark was a tough-talking, head-cracking Deep South lawman who had no patience with civil rights protests or with Baker’s “coddling” of agitators. And he was backed up by a volunteer posse notorious for brutalizing labor organizers in this so-called right-to-work state. The year before Dr. King came to Selma, the posse had been turned loose on civil rights marches with predictably bloody results.

Baker had been hired to polish the town’s image, and ever since, he and Clark had been jockeying for control of the city’s streets. When Dr. King announced his plans to come to Selma, their struggle ratcheted up several notches.

On our earlier marches in Selma we had stayed on the sidewalks. This time, though, we were proceeding brazenly down the middle of Sylvan Street. That made us a parade. As if following a script, Baker reminded Dr. King that he didn’t have a parade permit and warned that if we didn’t return to the sidewalk immediately, he’d have to arrest us.

Taking his cue, Dr. King quietly refused. Baker stepped aside, and we resumed our walking. Two blocks up we turned the corner. Ahead lay City Hall and, a few blocks farther south, the courthouse. But this was as far as we could be allowed to go. Blackuniformed police fanned out across the street ahead of us, and Baker drove up, got out of his patrol car, and announced our arrest. Dr. King asked if we could pause for a prayer, and we all knelt on the cold nubbly asphalt. Everything was going like clockwork.

There were about 250 of us in the march, and it took hours to book us all. The police herded us into the parking lot behind City Hall, and we stood there shivering in the cold, waiting our turn to go inside. Eventually I was led in, fingerprinted, photographed, and then taken upstairs to the third floor to what I now learned was the county jail. The city jail, which was too small to hold us all, was on the second floor.

The cells ran along two walls; above them, out of reach, was a row of small windows. Across from the cellblock was a large day room, bare except for a couple of steel tables bolted to the floor and a toilet in the corner. The marchers were huddled here, and I moved in to join them. We all were waiting for Dr. King to join us and tell us what to do next.

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.

“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

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.