A Soggy Moment With Dr. King
Late afternoon memories on Martin Luther King Day 2015. The year was 1964, the Maytag Company lecture series had sponsored Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King in an address to Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. My father was Director of Public Relations for the Maytag Company and arranged for Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and two other men on Dr. King's staff to fly back to Chicago and connect with their commercial flight to Atlanta on the Maytag Company private King Air.
My mother got me out of Junior High School that rainy day in Newton, Iowa and we caught up with Dr. King at the small air strip in the rain as he and the others huddled under the wing of the airplane preparing to board. "Dr. King," she said, "I want you to meet my son, John.""Oh, geesh. I thought, "We're causing these grown men, famous men, to stand in the rain even a moment longer so they can meet me?" Only my mom would be so presumptuous. I wanted to crawl under the airplane's wheels. At twelve years of age, I was almost skinny enough to fit.
But I stood tall, shook Dr. King's hand with his powerful, thick fingers, and looked up into his eyes. Although he looked back at me, he wasn't there. I'll never forget how, in that moment, standing in the relentless Iowa drizzle, raindrops dripping rhythmically from his black fedora, behind his tired eyes, Martin Luther King's thoughts were somewhere else-maybe Washington, Atlanta, Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis, Boston, or Selma, Alabama.
Wherever he slept that night, he left in my hand a copy of Letter from a Birmingham Jail with his fresh signature upon it. In the many years since that day, hundreds of people have held this transitional object. As I hold it this afternoon I'm reaching across time to that moment in 1964 with the one who authored and autographed it. A man who is timeless and, like Abraham Lincoln, belongs to the ages.