It was a far simpler and more innocent time back in early 1965 when I hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Harvard College. Even though President Kennedy had been assassinated only a year earlier, Dr. King, the recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, arrived at Boston Logan Airport the way he left Boston that night, without an entourage and without security. Less than four years later he was also dead.
I was paged at Logan Airport that cold Sunday morning. There were no cell phones back then and what now seems prehistoric was the norm for us. I answered the page, and Dr. King’s unmistakable voice told me he had incorrectly gone to Idlewild Airport now JFK rather than to LaGuardia Airport. He would be an hour late.
No limousine was waiting for Dr. King, only a college student’s Chevy Corvair and my roommate T.D. Pauley. Both T.D. and Dr. King belonged to the same black fraternity, and I warned T.D. not to start making secret handshakes with the civil rights leader. Sure enough, no sooner had the two met than their hands intertwined mysteriously. When I asked Dr. King to show me the handshake, he laughed softly and politely declined.
We raced off to Cambridge and arrived at the church just in time. I wish I could remember the conversation during that half hour ride, but I was nervous, to say the least, and concentrated on my driving. Dr. King was polite. We all made some small talk, but Dr. King seemed to be deep in thought at times. Perhaps he was going over his talk.
I had never been to Memorial Church before. There were no empty seats, and as I looked around I couldn’t help but be moved by the names engraved on the marble walls of all those young Harvard graduates who had died in wars starting as far back as the first World War.
Dr. King spoke and I was struck that morning, just as I had been in Washington, D.C. more than a year earlier when he delivered his famous “I’ve Got A Dream” speech, by the power of his voice. Emanating from somebody of short stature and only half my current age, the voice had a life of its own. When Dr. King spoke of “the abyss of annihilation,” the phrase echoed through the halls of that magnificent edifice.
Dr. King and I parted for the afternoon. He returned to Boston to visit friends, and I prepared for his evening talk before the Harvard-Radcliffe Young Democratic Club of which I was President. The plan was for us to meet at Boston’s Sheraton Hotel around 5PM.
Again he was late and paged me at the hotel. Back in Cambridge, the two of us walked through the Leverett House dining room where Barry Williams, a friend of mine and captain of the Harvard basketball team, had been holding four hundred members of our dormitory waiting for Dr. King to walk through on his way to a private dining room. Not a single student had left.
The students who had waited at least an hour rose to their feet and gave Dr. King a resounding ovation. He acknowledged them and appeared pleased and moved.
During dinner an aide of Dr. King’s approached me with a request, “Dr. King would like to take a brief rest before giving his talk tonight. Can you recommend a suitable place?” I took Dr. King to my suite--living room and bedroom—and he took about a half hour nap in my bed before reappearing.
The auditorium was filled to beyond capacity with students sitting everywhere including behind him on stage, and Dr. King spoke for almost an hour. Regretfully I have no recording of his speech which captivated the audience. We all knew we were listening to one of the great orators of our time.
I had to follow Dr. King which is a bit like singing after Pavarotti or Streisand. I presented Dr. King with a check for $2,000 made out to his Southern Christian Leadership Council, which in retrospect seems like a paltry sum considering what lesser speakers command today.
We left the auditorium and with a police escort headed to the downtown Boston train station. The roads were icy and while crossing a bridge my car started to skid. All I could think of was the next day’s headline, “Dr. King killed by Harvard student.”
We arrived at the train station around 11 p.m. and some porters told Dr. King that when his train pulled into New York City at 5 a.m. they would not wake him until 7 a.m. He boarded the train alone and we never saw each other again.
We in this country celebrate the birthdays of Jesus Christ, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To have spent a day with Dr. King will always be one of the highlights of my life.