For many, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is a just another a national holiday or maybe a day of public service. For some who personally knew Dr. King, it changed their life forever and their life is his legacy.
In late spring of 1958 Terence Roberts was 16-years –old.
Ernie Green, Little Rock Nine, was preparing to graduate from Little Rock Central High School. Because of the concerns for safety and security only his immediate family would attend.
However, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. passed himself off as an uncle. According to Dr. Roberts this was fairly early in Dr. King’s ministry and not many people knew him.
“As I think about it, it didn’t matter anyway because to most he was just another black person,” says Dr. Roberts.
Terrence Roberts, Ph.D., Little Rock Nine, met Dr. King at the home of Daisy Bates for some post adulation and dialogue.
Seven of us gathered with Dr. King, as he was concerned about what was going on in Little Rock.
Dr. Roberts said he encouraged them to continue the fight and made sure “we realize what was going on because we were quite young.” He also didn’t want to make any assumptions says Dr. Roberts. “He was very encouraging.”
Earlier that school year Dr. King dispatched Reverends Jim Lawson and Glenn Smiley, a white civil rights consultant and leader to speak to them about non-violence.
It was through them the Little Rock Nine learned about Dr. King’s concerns for their safety.
Dr. King told Lawson and Smiley that these kids are quite young, have not been tested, were not sure if they’re ready for non-violent protests.
Dr. Roberts recalls King, Lawson and Smiley felt if these nine students could say that we love thou enemy then we are ready. “We said yeah.”
“I remember Dr. King as a young man who was really focused on equality for black people,” recollects Dr. Roberts. “I didn’t sense this was a singular moment. Because of our youth we were unschooled and uninformed about so many things.”
Tom Houck, 68, once drove for a Dr. King. In 1966, Houck, a 19-year-old white civil rights volunteer, stood in front of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarter after arriving from Birmingham.
He recalls Dr. King stopped and offered a ride. Houck responded yes. As a bonus he was invited to the home of the King family for Sunday lunch. Houck vividly remembers the sweet tea, fried chicken, ham, collard, mustard and turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, and a banana pudding pie.
Over the meal Houck and the Kings bond. Coretta Scott King expressed their need for a driver. Houck accepted and for nine months he transported the Kings around town.
“I don’t think anybody could have been luckier than me to have been so closely involved in the civil rights movement with such a significant leader.”
Houck was in Atlanta to help with the SCLC voter registration campaign.
“I was arrested over 20 times as an organizer for SCLC,” according Houck. “That included Vietnam War, open housing in Chicago, as well as the poor people’s campaign.”
Houck describes Dr. King as having ordinary sensibilities. He says Dr. King never believed he was better than anyone else.
“As matter of fact we gossiped a lot as I drove him around town. Nevertheless I was still a foot solider.”
Ironically he had no security staff or entourage.
“He was the moral force of the planet.” Houck also remembers Dr. King was a fun loving guy who joked, loved music, played pool, played the numbers (lottery) and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.
“He often played practical jokes on Ralph Abernathy.”
However there were unsettling moments too.
Houck recollects there weren’t a lot of white people working with SCLC during his involvement.
“When I was arrested during voting registration rallies, school and restaurant desegregation protest, I was put in the white section of the jail.”
He said the white inmates would team up on him while calling him a “nigger lover and Jew.”
He’s not Jewish.
Houck drop out of high school but attended Martin Luther King, Jr. University. He admits to having a professor who had a Nobel Peace Prize and was leader of a billion people around the planet.
“Thanks to Dr. King I also learned how to see things from a global view.”
According to Houck Dr. King spoke forcefully and passionately about social justice and understood what needed to done to advance the civil rights movement.