We never called him Dr. King in those days. We all called him Martin. He was, after all, a very young man, only a year older than I, and I was 30. Coretta was even younger, and their children were babies. Julian Bond was a college sophomore majoring in comparative literature. Marian Wright (Edelman) was a senior with a dream of going to Yale Law School. Andy Young, the future mayor of Atlanta, and Wyatt Tee Walker, the future pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, were young movers and shakers in Martin's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I was a reporter on the Atlanta Journal assigned to cover the southern civil rights movement. It was fall 1960, "hot days in Georgia," as former U.S. attorney general Griffin Bell was later to describe them.
Black students at Atlanta University were marching in the streets that fall and staging protests at the city's big department stores where lunch counters and restrooms were still segregated. Martin waited, stayed out of it, until Oct. 19, when he appeared at a Rich's department store carry-out sandwich counter where a frightened clerk who had her orders refused to serve him. I had been tipped off, and I was the only reporter there. Just the two of us.
"If she would serve you, which sandwich would you take?" I asked him.
He smiled at the question and inspected the pile. "I think that ham and cheese right there."
He had arrived carrying a big armload of books because he knew he was going to end up in jail. And indeed he did, in the Fulton County jail where I went to visit him the next day.
There was great, immediate national concern for his safety. I was told by the jailers I would find him in the barber shop, second door on the right. And there he was, lying back in a reclining barber's chair, lather all over his face. Being shaved by a white trustee with a straight razor.
"Don't you feel a bit apprehensive under the circumstances?" I asked him.
"What are you talking about? This man is an excellent barber."
"Me and him, we get along just fine," the trustee said.
A couple of days later they took him away on a trumped-up charge -- violation of a probated traffic sentence -- which, as Ralph Abernathy later said, "took him out of that clean Fulton County jail where they treat you like a human being and took him to Reidsville (the Georgia state prison) where they whup you and strop you and call you nigger."
Coretta was frantic. She called me, and I called Reidsville but got nothing but a perfunctory response. John Kennedy, campaigning against Richard Nixon for president, called Coretta. Suddenly Martin was a political hot potato, and the DeKalb County judge who had sent him to Reidsville released him on a $2,000 bond.
That night, the night of Oct. 27, 1960, Ebenezer Baptist Church on sweet Auburn Street was packed. Martin's father, King Sr., was the main man in those days, virile and bull strong. Martin was associate pastor. His civil rights "empire" consisted of one small, book-filled office in the back of Ebenezer Baptist.
William Holmes Borders, who looked like God, pastor of Wheat Street Baptist, just around the corner, and King Sr.'s big rival, warmed up the crowd: The story about the black worker who fell off the 25th floor of the new Atlanta office building under construction. Fell like a rock until, a few feet from impact, he noticed a white woman walking directly under him. "So he swerved." And the story about the black worker from Detroit who came home to Georgia for a visit just in time to see that the whole town was turned out to witness a black man being lynched. Asked the Greyhound ticket man when does the next bus leave for Detroit? Two hours from now. When did the last bus leave for Detroit? Two hours ago. "I'll catch that one."
Martin's father told the crowd he had not planned to support John Kennedy because he was Catholic "and I couldn't go that way . . . until he called my sweet daughter."
Then came Martin, out of jail and, I think, inspired. "I have a dream," he told the hushed crowd that night at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
It was a theme he had been developing slowly over the years, his beautiful and inspiring vision of a nation united by justice, equality, compassion and love, mutually shared. And it was essentially the same address he gave at the Lincoln Memorial three years later when he commanded this nation to look itself in the eye.
At one point that evening, a quarter of a century ago, the black man sitting next to me in the church got carried away, clapped his hands and shouted, "Talk, talk! That Martin can talk!"
Martin was what we all called him in those days, so young he was. And indeed he could.
The writer is a correspondent for NBC News.