Columnist Dick Evans: Recalls encounter with Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Published: 4/2/2018 9:33:50 PM

It was my sophomore year at Emory University in Atlanta, 1962-63. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the supreme “outside agitator” in the eyes of southern demagogues, had been invited to take a drive across town and speak at the university. His speech was dazzling, but the best part came later.

As it happened, I was sharing a faculty/sabbatical house on the edge of campus with five fraternity brothers, one of whom, a senior, was a campus leader, chairman of the student committee that invited distinguished speakers to the campus.

He invited Dr. King to an after-party at our house.

The landlords having sensibly locked their good furniture in a back room, the décor was pure undergraduate. Dr. King, his wife Coretta and their small ensemble stayed nearly two hours.

While Mrs. King mingled, Dr. King settled on a worn sofa with a small audience of frat boys, undaunted by our utter obliviousness to the social stirring around us. We were the last gasp of the “Silent Generation.” The civil rights movement was gathering early steam; the cultural revolution and anti-war movement lay ahead. He did most of the talking.

My clear recollection was being stunned by the power of his intellect, blown away by his extraordinary command of language, and its deployment as an instrument of social change. He spoke in perfect paragraphs; you could hear every semicolon. Exquisitely apt metaphors gently fortified every point. His tone was conversational, but with exquisite precision. Before he started any sentence, he knew exactly where it would end. It was rhetorical virtuosity.

That our fraternity was founded in celebration of the confederacy, fortunately, did not come up. It was the first time that any of us southerners had ever hosted a black guest.

A few weeks later, I attended a Pete Seeger concert at another college in Atlanta, my first experience, believe it or not, in an integrated audience. It was startling when the show closed with the audience standing, swaying and (gulp) grasping hands to “We Shall Overcome.”

Like millions, I took inspiration from Dr. King’s courage to challenge the status quo in the name of justice. Unlike most, I suspect, I can smile that it started in my own living room.

Dick Evans is a Northampton lawyer. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

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