The two civil rights activists were sitting in a car at a small-town airport about 20 years ago, just hours after a rival organization had managed to scuttle their plans for an important organizational meeting. One of the activists, the Rev. Douglas Moore, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was furious, but the other was serene.
"I had planned a students' meeting for 5 p.m.," Moore recalls, "but the other group was trying to keep students away, so their youth coordinator called a meeting for 4 p.m., trying to pull a coup (and) sabotage our (gathering). Well, I was hot -- mad -- whatever, when I drove . . . to the airport." But Moore's passenger, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was unperturbed.
"At the airport," Moore recalls, "I talked with him about what they had tried to do, but the King just said, 'Their way and our way are not the same.'"
"It was at that moment," said Moore, who later served on the District's first elected city council, "that I realized the greatness, the uniqueness, the spirituality of Martin Luther King."
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, orator and author, might have been 52 today had he not been struck down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968. At the time of his death, he was preparing to lead a second mammoth march on Washington, D.C., later that month. It was to dramatize the need for a national commitment to ending racism and alleviating poverty. His death sparked days of rioting in the capital and around the country.
Today the District will be honoring King's memory with parades, marches and other public observances, but many will also be remembering their leader and friend in their own private ways. Of the dozen of local residents who knew and worked with King -- in the influential Washington office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in organizing the 1963 march of 1968 Poor People's Campaign -- each cherishes a particular incident or conversation, a bittersweet comfort at this time each year:
"I was with him in Memphis a few hours before his death," said Sterling Tucker, now an outgoing assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, then executive director of the Washington Urban League. "I was heading up to make a speech in New York when I heard, and I raced back to Washington and found the city enflamed." In his Urban League post, Tucker had helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which saw 200,000 people form across the country pour into the capital for the biggest civil rights demonstration in the nation's history. Tucker was later a principal organizer of the 1968 Poor People's campaign.
"In Memphis that night (before he died) he went to a church and he told a story of a little girl who had written him when he was in the hospital. He had been stabbed by a crazed woman at an autographing party, and the little girl said she'd heard that the wound was such that if he'd sneezed he would have died. The girl wrote and told him that she hoped he wouldn't sneeze. That night at the church, he told the congregation, 'I'm glad I didn't sneeze, to be able to be here and do what needs to be done.'
"As we look back," said Tucker, sounding distant, "It's remarkable the way society is able to raise up great men at the right time, and it took a Martin Luther King to bring about what happened without bringing the society down, without a civil war."
Lonnie King, a principal organizer of the effort to desegregate downtown Atlanta, now lives in D.C. He remembers: "When it came time (to ask for King's help in) the student movement, he went to jail with us at a sit-in at Rich's Department Store." King (no relation), was a student leader in Morehouse College,, which King also attended. He is now president of a consulting firm with offices in Southeast Washington and Atlanta.
"I remember this tremendous mass meeting (in Atlanta) to get some boycott accomplished, and Martin Luther King's father got up and tried to calm the crowd and they booed him. Then Martin got up and made what I think was his greatest speech ever. I'm paraphrasing, of course, but I think he said, 'The black man can ill afford the cancerous disease of disunity.It's debilitating and will weaken every fiber of our being and will consume us.' That has always stuck in my mind," King said, "because he's quite right."
Jim Hudson, now a partner in his own downtown Washington law firm, was also a Morehouse activist. He remembers the same meeting: "People were upset because they thought a desegregation agreement had been broken. Everyone was trying to calm the crowd and he was the last speaker. Within two minutes he had the crowd in his hands, because they trusted him. There was such love they would have followed him anywhere," he said.
Most Washingtonians who knew King met him through such organizing work in the South or through the D.C. branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Directed by Walter Fountroy out of a nondescript office on upper 14th Street NW, the local SCLC arranged indispensable contacts between federal officials and civil rights leaders -- contacts that included presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as well as recalcitrant southern senators who opposed civil rights lelgislation. But those efforts took place at a time when segregations was a fact of life, albeit illegal in the District, and even the SCLC's simple gestures of political gamesmanship elicited frequent threats of violence.
"I am amazed now at the fearlessness with which we went about, day to day, doing what now appear to be frightening tasks," recalled Fauntroy, now D.C. delegate to the House of Representatives. "The KKK called on occasion to tell me that they were going to do me in. And it never bothered me. I just dismissed it. There were people killed, but with all of that I was never fearful. Dr. King communicated to all of us a sense of confidence in our mission as moral leaders that gave us moral courage."
At this time of year, many of King's former followers speculate on the issues toward which he might have directed his activism if he were alive today. Most assume he would be applying his compassion and diplomatic skill to international conflicts, toward helping to solve the hostage crisis or troubles in the Middle East, or smoothing the United States' conflicts with the Third World. Some believe that somewhere in the country another leader of King's stature is developing.
"King created his leadership in the Fifties," insissted Councilmember David Clarke, who directed the Washington SCLC from 1969 until it folded in 1972. "And that leadership is developing somewhere. The flaky leaders only develop when there's a crowd to lead, but the real leaders are working all the time."
Others say that since King's death they have not felt the headiness those days of unity and courage and love.
"Although I feel it now," said Sterling Tucker after a long conversation remembering King, "And I often feel it when I'm alone."