As a television camera whirled, a reported tried to ask Rev. Martin L. King Sr., the patriarch of the civil rights family, about his feelings on black leaders getting involved in the Middle East issues. "Don't discuss it because I don't know enought about it," was the brisk reply.
"Are you in favor of," the reporter tried, and King cut him off with a slow, sharp, "I don't know." Then the reporter asked for an updating on his view of President Jimmy Carter. "Right where I was then (1976)," King replied, with a smile. "Kennedy's young and he should wait four more years. Carter's done a good job, should give him another four."
As he walked away, the slow, lumbering step showing the 79 years which his bellowing voice belies, King looked smug, slapping a few of his friends on the back. And that short soliloquy of Daddy King, as the father of the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., is affectionately known, was one of the few political observations in an evening that promised to be fraught with political overtones.
The Morehouse School of Religion, which was honoring King at the Washington Hilton last night, had planned a tribute that included Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a likely challenger to Carter's expected reelection bid; former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, a Carter loyalist; Rev. Ike, whose style is opposite of the Kings; Walter Fauntroy, the beleaguered District delegate; and Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP, the principal moderating voice in the current outcry about the alleged black-Jewish rift.
During the last day, according to Carol Beadle, one of the banquet organizers, conflicts developed in everyone's schedule, except for Hooks, Coretta Scott King, and Rev. Ike, who was registered at the hotel but never appeared at the dinner. So an evening of the expected tributes to the strength and endurance of King replaced the expected political fireworks.
"The story Martin Jr. liked to tell about his dad was when they were downtown one day and a white policeman called King Sr. a boy. And King Sr. pointed to Martin who was about 10 and said, 'This is a boy here, I am a man.' That incident made Martin very aware of his father's courage," recalled Rev. Julius James, a Morehouse alumnus, who was sipping a nonalcoholic punch, waiting for King Sr. to appear.
In the pre-dinner exchange of King stories, Hooks described a meeting where King Sr. scolded the younger civil rights workers for wasting money on hotels. "It was about 1967, after the hotels had opened, so we were taking advantage. And he told me, 'Boy, look down from this window at my car. I've got my lunch in there.'
"It was all about an approach to life."
Shortly before the dinner, King came into the room with Jesse Hill, the Atlanta businessman, and spoke hotly to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich), whose disputes with Carter are well known. "Conyers, [you] ain't with my man," said King. "So we must come to a parting of the ways." Conyers smiled, reminding him that the King Legal Holiday bill, which Conyers introduced 10 years ago, was coming up for a vote next Monday. King clasped his hands in prayer gesture.
On the dais King, surrounded by his family, including his only surviving child, Christine Ferris; his best best friend, Benjamin Mays, the educator and orator, and other Morehouse alumni who have made the Morehouse name a legacy of service, was called "one of the world's great Christian citizens." Said Hooks, himself a minister, as well as attorney and former judge, "Daddy King has been a beacon of hope and a light in the desert of despair." As Hooks went on at locomotive speed, shouting up Psalms, comparing King to Socrates, Plato, Joshua and Job, King raised his hands to the sky, rocked back and forth, touching Hooks on the shoulder.
"And Daddy King feels like the James Cleveland song, 'I feel no way tired. . . . I don't believe he's brought me this far to leave me,'" finished King, as all the hands at the head table waved back and forth.
After several speakers, King took the podium, the thunderous voice almost mournful as he talked of his loneliness, the loss of one son to an assassin, another son to a drowning accident and his wife to a murderer.
"I'm not bitter. I carry no ill will in my heart against anybody . . . .I will not stoop so low to hate," said King. Then he added the last political word of the evening: "I am staying with Jimmy Carter. I'm not going to let anybody turn me around. . . . I am with him. Are you listening? gI am with him. If we lose this administration, Carter does not lose, we lose. If someone splits the party and Reagan gets in, you are going back to hell." And with that he sat down for the final prayer.