More than three decades after Melba Pattillo Beals met Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and long after King’s death in 1968, she faced a stunning predicament.
One night as she sat down to read a story book about King with her 6-year-old twins, they told her what they thought they knew about him.
He was bad so they killed him.
She paused, her temperature rising. Where had her children heard that?
King has been gone now more years than he was alive. Seven in 10 people in metro Atlanta today had not yet been born when King was killed. King is history to them: an icon, a holiday, a name on streets nationwide, a towering figure carved in stone on the Washington Mall. And like all icons, he has been mythologized in ways good and bad. How should the man who embodied the civil rights movement be remembered in 2018?
There are people still living who knew King in everyday life, or whose lives were transformed by a single meeting with him. The AJC contacted a number of those people to form a picture of King the man, before he became King the icon.
Melba Beals was a member of the Little Rock Nine, the group of black students who integrated Central High School in 1957. She and the others met with King days after a mob of angry whites had thwarted their attempts to enter the school. Their hopes for a school year filled with friends, fun and a better education were crushed by racial epithets and rocks lobbed across sidewalks. “We were just coming into the understanding that this was going to be a fight,” Beals said.
The nine sat chatting anxiously at the home of the local head of the NAACP. Beals was convinced King was coming to fix everything and make it all better. When he walked in the room, they went silent. King moved from one student to the next, stopping to look each one of them directly in the eye. When they sat down, he began to speak in his slow voice, telling them they were making a mark on history. He listened to their questions and concerns.
Beals, who was 15, expressed her anger and hurt.
“He didn’t say anything about I’m going to stop your pain,” she said. “He said ‘Melba, don’t be selfish. You are not doing this for yourself. You are doing this for generations to come.’”
“I knew it was a life-changing meeting. I just didn’t know how,” Beals said. “I entered the room as a whining self-entitled teenager and I left the room as someone else.”
When he left, she said, King made a promise to them: “He said, ‘I am here for you. I will pray for you. If you need me, I will come back.’”
Her sons told her King was killed because he didn’t follow the rules: they’d heard it in school. Beals thought back to those moments in Little Rock. How could a teacher get it so wrong? The next morning she showed up at the school.
The teacher was annoyed — here was another helicopter parent making a landing — until Beals revealed her history. The teacher was shocked, then apologetic. She said she had not intended to give Beals’ sons the impression that King was bad. Then she listened to what Beals had to say.
“I said she had to give them a framework,” she said. “She had to say this is a black man who feels he has been treated unfairly. He only used public activities like marching and demonstrating when he felt he had to reclaim what was guaranteed to him by the Constitution.”
No cheating at Monopoly!
June Dobbs Butts knew King in a wholly different way: as a child and then a young man.
He was a child when his family moved to a house on Boulevard — not far from the home of John Wesley Dobbs and his six daughters. Dobbs had a strict no-boys-in-the-house policy, but he made an exception for M.L. King and his brother A.D.
June Dobbs was close to King’s age. She and her older sister, Mattiwilda, M.L. and A.D and two other children in the neighborhood would gather at one of their homes to play whist or Monopoly. King was the more serious of the two boys but they made a lively pair.
“When they got together, they were like a stand-up comedy act,” June Dobbs Butts said during an interview at her residence in North Fulton.
Even as a child, King had no tolerance for dishonesty. At one point, A.D. devised a plan for Butts to get the upper hand during their Monopoly games. He would stuff paper money into his pants and pretend to go to the bathroom. Outside the room, he would slip the extra bills to Butts. When King caught them in the act, he cuffed A.D. in the head.
“He was furious. He couldn’t see why he would cheat,” Butts said. After that, King refused to play Monopoly with them again.
As college students, Butts and King ended up in sociology class together at Atlanta University.
They would sit in King’s car and have long talks about the future. But one thing in the present was clear: King struggled under his father’s expectations. King Sr. would chastise his son if he earned anything less than an A in school. Sometimes Butts would go to their house and find King near tears doubting his own abilities, said Butts. “He was hard on himself,” she said. “He wanted to please his father.”
But despite feeling that he didn’t always measure up to his father’s expectations, King was a self-possessed young man. At 17, he gave a trial sermon. Butts attended with her father. It was just one of several occasions when her father said the young King was going to go far, she said.
One of the most poignant memories Butts has of her childhood friend was a small moment of grace in the days before his death. King was scheduled to speak to the Rabbinical Assembly in upstate New York. Butts was living in New York at the time when she learned of his visit. She was by then a mother of three. At one point during King’s visit, Abby, the daughter of one of the rabbis, began repeatedly asking King if he knew Lucia, Butts’ daughter. She didn’t believe the girl knew him.
King was in the midst of a difficult conversation regarding the verifiable threats on his life, but King stopped talking to address Abby. “Let’s put it this way, I think I know her mother better,” King said.
“He was more patient and fearless than everybody I ever knew and he even had a heart for children’s petty squabbles,” Butts said. “He didn’t say the child was wrong. He tried to find common ground for everybody. That to me is unmatched. I don’t know of anybody who was so kind, thoughtful and strong.”
Ten days later, he was gone.
‘Like meeting Jesus Junior’
Keeping King’s dream alive among younger generations has become a double-edge sword, said Atlanta-based historian Maurice Hobson. “On one level it was a brilliant move on behalf of Coretta Scott King to create a public historical monument that pays homage to the life, legacy and sacrifice of Dr. King Jr.,” he said.
“But have we mythologized him? Yes, we have.”
King never considered himself the leader of a movement, said Hobson, professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State University and author of “The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta.”
“I am sure if Dr. King were still alive he would say he was part of a movement with a lot of people,” said Hobson. “King was a man of the people.”
On March 23, 1968, Ira Joe Johnson was one of those people. He sat in a church pew in Macon eagerly awaiting for King, whose arrival had been delayed for hours.
Johnson and others remained seated as morning turned into afternoon. Johnson was 17, a high school junior who lived in a rural area outside Macon. As the hours passed, some of the people left. But Johnson wouldn’t budge.
The group passed the time singing gospel and freedom songs.
Suddenly, a voice – Dr. King is here.
Everyone in the church leapt to their feet. King entered the New Zion Baptist Church to thunderous applause.
“He thanked the audience for waiting for him,” said Johnson. “He said there was a storm, and not only a storm in Macon, but a storm brewing in the country.”
A young Johnson felt his heart race as King talked about the movement and said, ‘We can’t stop now.’
King and Johnson spoke afterward, and King encouraged Johnson to attend Morehouse College. He also urged Johnson to get a group of young people together to head to Washington for the Poor People’s March.
“It was like meeting Jesus Junior,” said Johnson. “He was a holy man. He was going to solve the problems.”
‘The message gets diluted’
An obligatory stop for visitors at the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district is the two-story Queen Anne-style house at 501 Auburn Ave., where King was born. Anyone who takes the guided tour is entertained with stories of how King and his younger brother A.D. ripped the heads from their sister Christine’s dolls to use for batting practice, or how the family gathered for games of Chinese checkers with “Daddy” King. M.L.’s family lived in the house on Auburn Avenue until he was 12.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of young men stand outside a modest red-brick house with white trim in the Vine City neighborhood. It’s where King moved his young family in 1965, a year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are no signs announcing this four-bedroom, two-and-a-half baths house. A single red tulip and deep pink azalea bush dot a tiny front yard. It’s ordinary – strikingly so.
“The farther you get in time for this iconic figure, the message gets diluted,” said Quentin Riser, who is black. Riser is 25 and a child development researcher at Iowa State University. “I know the main one liners. I know about the nonviolent protests. I didn’t know where he lived, or the lounge where he would go to.”
Riser didn’t know King stood just 5 feet 7 inches. In his mind, he was a towering figure. He didn’t know King started going to Morehouse College at just 15.
“Seeing places where he lived and was educated allows me to better understand who he is and it shows me that a man in 2018 – me – can make change to reduce injustice,” he said.
Riser and his cousin, Jerel Jefferson, a music teacher in Clayton County, were part of a group of friends and cousins taking the Civil Rights Tour, which starts and ends on Auburn outside the King Historic Site.
‘Not a perfect person. A real person.’
It’s led by Tom Houck, a driver and personal assistant for the King family. During the tour, he tells his story: Houck arrived in Atlanta in 1966 to help with voter registration efforts. Shortly after his arrival, the white man with long brown hair was waiting for a ride in front of the SCLC headquarters when King saw him and invited him to lunch.
Houck, now 70, still remembers the lunch: fried chicken, cornbread, collards, sweet tea and banana cream pudding. Later that day, Coretta commented on the family’s need for a driver. And for the next nine months, Houck drove the King children to school, occasionally drove King and Coretta around town (though King liked to drive himself often, too). And he served as a personal assistant for the family. Weekly salary — $25.
Houck generously sprinkles the tour with King stories: King’s first real job (at a mattress factory, where he quit after two weeks), where he walked to buy penny candy (where Lotta Frutta is now), where he would shoot pool, go to college, and fight for racial equality and social justice. King while known for his intensity, also displayed a great sense of humor. He smoked (a lot of) cigarettes. Coretta did not like the habit and would check her husband’s pockets for smokes. King started giving Houck cigarettes to hold onto.
Jerel Jefferson said the tour is part of a quest to learn about King – not the icon or saint, but the flesh-and-blood human being. He’s learned about the movement taking an enormous toll on King’s body and psyche. He’s found inspiration in learning King was a flawed, vulnerable person.
“He was not a perfect person,” said Jefferson. “He was a real person. We see humanness. And that helps us relate. The struggle continues. And the more people know, the more people care.”
Commenting on this article is being moderated by AJC editors.
The March 21 documentary 'The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' on Channel 2 kicked off a countdown of remembrance across the combined platforms of Channel 2 and its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB Radio.
The three Atlanta news sources will release comprehensive multi-platform content until April 9, the anniversary of King’s funeral.
On April 4, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the three properties will devote extensive live coverage to the memorials in Atlanta, Memphis and around the country.
The project will present a living timeline in real time as it occurred on that day in 1968, right down to the time the fatal shot was fired that ended his life an hour later.
The project will culminate on April 9 with coverage of the special processional in Atlanta marking the path of Dr. King’s funeral, which was watched by the world.