Not long after he had been freed from prison, the former deputy sheriff met me at the motel where I was staying. His name was Cecil Ray Price, and he had been convicted of sending three civil rights workers to their deaths. Their names — never to be forgotten — were Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. This was Philadelphia, Miss., 11 years after the 1964 murders, and I recall it now because of what Price said about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Price had come face to face with greatness.

“That Dr. King,” he said. “He had something. There was something about that man.”

Price sat heavy on the bed. He had found a job working on a fuel-delivery truck, and he was grateful for that. He was appalled at what he had done and glad things had changed even though it was tough for his son, who was being hassled by some black kids in school. But the school was no longer segregated, and that was good, and the town was no longer damp with hate, and that was good, too. Looking back now, he could not believe how hard they had hated and how bitterly they had fought for a system that swiftly collapsed and nobody missed. Good riddance, Jim Crow.

Columnist Eugene Robinson learned of MLK's death as a teen in the segregated South. He says the activist was more complicated than history remembers him. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

And then he mentioned King. He had met King when King had come to town to protest the murders and put up bail for an associate. King stood on the steps of the county courthouse and said, “The murderers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner are no doubt within range of my voice.” From behind him, King heard Price mutter, “You’re damn right, we’re right here behind you.”

Price had not pulled the trigger on the three, but he had arrested them, jailed them and then handed them over to the Ku Klux Klan to be shot. He got six years for violating their civil rights.

I met King only once, but indulge me if I think I grasped the greatness Price saw. It was immense courage. Price had not read King’s speeches or fathomed the profoundness of nonviolence, but he was a man and he stood, like most men do, in awe of men who have conquered fear. That does not mean that King was never afraid. The vehemence of the hate he encountered in 1966 Chicago deeply shook him. The crowds were big-city big, thick with Carl Sandburg’s onetime hog butchers, young men who mistook their white skin for achievement. King was shaken, “unprepared for the villainy he saw in the world,” as his friend Harry Belafonte says in the current HBO documentary “King in the Wilderness.” King died in that wilderness.

King’s last years were painful, lonely with worry for his life and for his reputation. As I watched this remarkable documentary, I scrutinized King’s face for even a hint of fear. I saw nothing. King thought J. Edgar Hoover was attempting to drive him to suicide by leaking details of his sex life. He knew he was on the target end of countless scopes mounted on countless rifles. He was a dead man walking, but he walked anyway, each day donning a bull’s eye.

On the last night of his life, he rose from a sickbed to extemporaneously make a stirring speech that foreshadowed his death. “And I’ve seen the Promised Land,” he said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

He was killed the next day.

Winston Churchill called courage “the quality which guarantees all others.” In King’s case, it guaranteed his adherence to nonviolence. It was a difficult, often enraging choice, but it presented white America with a moral challenge. Come be as good as I am, King seemed to be saying. Morality begat morality. King was never going to be the equal of his opponents. He was always their better.

Cecil Ray Price brought up Martin Luther King on his own. I did not ask about him. It seemed he wanted to tell someone that he had encountered a great man. Price had blood on his hands and hate in his heart when he had met King, but he knew instantly that he had met his better. He saw then what we all see now. It has been 50 years, but the vision grows sharper, and King grows greater.

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