“Today’s the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s murder,” I told Eddie for no apparent reason other than it just was. He smiled. Eddie had been waiting for me at our regular table by the window. He had already consumed a cup of coffee. Our weekly conversation at the “World’s Greatest Cafe” was off and running. It always flowed effortlessly. My writings, his church commitments, Trump, the economy, getting old, movies, books, wives, our children, and the weather to name but a few of the topics we invariably touched upon. Never any complaining.
I then expanded on the sad anniversary and recalled the time I was in Memphis and visited the Lorraine Motel where the Civil Rights leader was shot. It was one of those stories I had told many times before. It may have turned a little stale in the retelling.
“Have I never told you about the time I met him?” Eddie said.
“Who we talking about here?” I asked, trying to keep track of the conversation that invariably wheeled off in any direction at any tangential thought.
“You met Martin Luther King?” I asked incredulously.
“Had dinner with him three times,” Eddie said proudly. “Me, my brothers and my sister hated it.”
“Well, we were just kids and he came to the house for dinner. At the table he would take a mouth full of food, sit back in the chair, and then begin to chatter on some idea. After a couple of minutes he would stop talking, lean forward, take another fork full of food, lean back, and begin again. As children we had to sit there and listen. It was an hour and a half of excruciating conversation before we were allowed to leave the table.”
“What was he like?”
“He was young then, twenty six or seven, but seemed old to us. And very wise. I remember some of the words he used: freedom, integration, and direct action. I didn’t know what he meant, but I could see my parents listened intently, like those in the pews at my dad’s church on Sunday.”
“What was he doing at your house?” said I, now in journalistic mode.
“My dad was an Episcopal minister. They connected through the church. I had no idea who King was, other than he was a black man coming to our house. It was 1956. This was Cleveland, one of the posh districts, and things like that did not happen.”
“Man, that’s amazing. Was your dad influenced by Mr. King’s teachings?”
“He didn’t take part in any of King’s marches, although dad would be involved in civil rights campaigns on his own. African Americans were welcome at his church and he organized inter-racial study groups. King visited Cleveland lots in the sixties, organizing the black community to get involved in politics: to vote. He came to our house for dinner a couple of more times. I was older then and appreciated the man, and his ideas, a lot more. It was very brave of my dad, doing what he was doing, during radical times. But the one who was most influenced by Dr. King’s teachings was my sister Mary. She was in awe of King, and dedicated her life to the ideas that he espoused. I think she even had a secret crush on him.”
“You’ve got to write this down; it would make a great article.” Eddie hesitated at the thought.
“No. I’m too close to the story.”
“I’ll help. How about I send you some questions to get you started? It will give you a skeleton form and then we can then fill in the blanks. Okay?”
Eddie agreed and as we left the coffee shop we were both energized by another idea, another project, and another distraction from our aging years. When I returned to my apartment I drafted ten questions and emailed them to him. I thought within a week a fascinating piece of American, and personal, history would be revealed.
“I can’t do it,” he told me when we met the following Monday.
“Why not?” I was slightly disappointed.
“I never told you the other half of the story. The bad stuff. Many in dad’s congregation were upset about his welcoming of an African American, especially one as radical as Mr. King. The family suffered. We had rocks thrown through the window. I lost friends over it. They would use the “N” word about our dinner guest. They called us commies. After ten years service to the community, the church leaders eventually fired my dad. He applied for jobs, but was never hired. Later, we learned the FBI had influenced employer’s decisions. His name was on the security index, as was King’s. He did get a new job eventually, but the family had to move away from his beloved Cleveland.”
“That’s an even greater part of the story. You should include it.”
“I can’t. There’s something else. Mary was killed in a road accident while on her way to an anti-War rally. She had dedicated her life to the cause of civil rights and freedom, and was committed to change. My parents were devastated by her death.”
Eddie looked at me with a fragment of sadness in his eyes, but resolution in his face. After a moment of silence I picked up the conversation: “What were you doing while all this was going on?”
“I had dropped out of college. Not only was there student unrest, civil riots marches, but the Vietnam war was escalating. I was cut up about my sister’s death. She was the oldest, the smartest, and the brightest. I joined as many of the anti-war rallies as I could, maybe as a way of honouring her. I even joined the communist party. It would only be a matter of months before I received my call-up papers. My mother was dead set against the war, even more than my dad. With my mother’s encouragement I drove to Toronto and made it my home. I did not return to the US for many years, even when Amnesty for draft dodgers was declared. And, of course, they killed King in sixty-eight.”
“I wonder what your dad thought about his murder.”
“Years later, before he died, I asked him if he was proud of what he had done. No, was his answer. I was shocked. He never explained why. Was it the troubles he put the family through? Or was it Mr. King himself. Or was it my sister’s death. I never found out. It bothered me. Still does.”
“Fathers and sons,” I said.
“Heroes,” he corrected me. “We see them in one dimension. We love them, look up to them, and for many of us we live our lives always trying to please them. But then sometimes we see our heroes in another light and it shakes the foundation on which we have built. I can’t write the story. Sorry.”
I asked: “Would you mind if I write it as best I can?”
“With my blessing’” was Eddie’s response.
We left the coffee shop; thoughts heavy on our minds. Once outside we pulled up the collars of our coats to protect ourselves. A light April rain had started to fall like gentle tears from an overcast sky.