Martin Luther King's skill in channeling the long-accumulated impatience with segregation was the keystone of his ministry, but for me, the memory that endures from a long-ago encounter with him is that of his own patience.
The year was 1958, before Selma, before Birmingham, before the March on Washington, when he was still pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. The 391-day nonviolent black boycott of Montgomery's city bus system was behind him, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he founded to harness the power of nonviolence to overturn America's apartheid system, was struggling for a foothold. His name was known, but he was not yet the symbol, revered and reviled, that he would become.
King was one of nearly 100 church leaders invited to take part in a national conference on Christian education conducted by the United Church of Christ on the campus of Purdue University in Indiana.
He was not a featured speaker; he had been invited to lead the early morning worship services. Even that, I suppose, reflected a degree of courage on the part of the church leadership. In 1958, it was not at all clear to most of white America that a civil rights revolution had begun.
The point of the conference was to help the thousands of men and women who taught Sunday school classes in local congregations across the country to do a better job. Lectures, seminars and study groups by the score offered help in what to teach and how to teach it.
Whatever else the conference offered, it was clear to those of us on the church's public relations staff that little on the program would entice the media to write about us. Even in the slow news days of August, workshops like "Adult Education in the Local Church" or "The Bible and Schoolchildren" are not the subjects featured in headlines.
So someone came up with an idea: We would stage a news conference with King, with 10 or 12 of the young conferees prepared to ask questions.
I was to make the arrangements with King, whose train, in the manner of all public transportation schedules to small college towns, had deposited him at Purdue in the middle of the night.
For reasons I no longer remember, plans had to be made immediately, so with considerable trepidation, I called his campus room. When the sleepy voice answered, I apologized profusely for waking him.
I can still hear the easy drawl of his "Oh, that's all right," and his ready assent to take on the extra assignment.
The youthful reporters took their assignments seriously and came prepared with questions. They were not hostile; they genuinely wanted to know: Why are you doing things that are against the law? Why do you want to go places where you're not wanted? Why do you go and get arrested?
With infinite patience, King listened and answered as one reasonable person to another. He explained to these mostly white, largely middle-class young people about Jim Crow, what it was like to live under segregation, how hard it was to be hated and not hate back, what it felt like to have your home bombed.
He talked about his own young children, who also often asked him, he said, why he had to do these things, why he had to be away from home so much. He explained to them how oppressors, as well as the oppressed, were victims of systems of segregation. He listened to their questions and, in a quiet, patient voice, answered them in ways that led them to ask more questions, to wrestle with ideas they had never before confronted.
When the allotted 30 minutes and more had passed, someone announced that the session was over but they could stay and ask more questions, and many did. They stayed, talking and listening, past the time for the educational film and the 8 p.m. service.
The precise words that passed among them are long forgotten. What I remember are the faces of those young people, faces of intense concentration, totally absorbed in the coming to grips with new ideas and concepts.
Actually, we didn't do too badly with the press either. The next day the local newspaper gave half a page to a photograph of King and the young questioners.