In a new memoir, My Time with the Kings: A Reporter’s Recollections of Martin, Coretta and the Civil Rights Movement, retired Associated Press reporter Kathryn Johnson describes civil rights flashpoints she covered in the 1960s and details her close relationship with the movement’s leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and his family.
As the nation marks the King holiday, here is an excerpt from Johnson’s book, in which she recalls an in-depth talk with King at his dining room table with his wife Coretta and, years later, her last interview with him, shortly before his assassination.
On a fiercely cold winter night in 1964, I was trudging alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he led a group of striking marchers at Scripto, a pen and pencil-manufacturing plant near downtown Atlanta.
Bundled in a heavy coat, my teeth chattering from the cold, I asked King the usual questions: “How much pay raise are they asking? Where are negotiations at this point? Do you plan to continue striking?”
Scripto workers had walked off the job, demanding equal pay with whites for skilled and nonskilled work.
King sympathized with the strikers, many of whom were members of his church. The straggly little group hurrying along the cold, dark city street drew little media attention except from one or two local TV reporters (and myself, from the AP).
By sheer luck, that assignment led to my meeting later in the privacy of the King home and to my personal introduction to his incredible gifts as an orator.
King, ending the freezing march at 11:15 p.m., told me, “This is a dangerous section of town. Let me escort you to your car.”
When we reached my car several blocks away, I offered to drive him home. At that time, the Kings lived on nearby Johnson Street.
As I stopped the car to let King out, his wife, Coretta, pregnant with their last child, came to the door and said, “Come on in and have some hot coffee. You’ll warm up.” King led me to a phone in his office, and I quickly called in my strike story.
I then joined the couple at their dining room table, sipping coffee and talking about what had become known as the Movement.
I’d long been impressed with King’s personal magnetism and flow of words at news conferences, but sitting at their table late that night, I was struck by his simple brilliance as a leader. His ability to put into words the longings, the hopes and dreams of his people, their anguish and their cry for human dignity, clearly was a great gift.
After that night – although King was known for never calling reporters by their first names – he always called me Kathryn.
King was to me a you-ng, well-educated Baptist minister who came out of the Jim Crow churches of the South preaching brotherhood and nonviolence. But it was into a land filled with violence. Blacks were being beaten, lynched and terrorized by Ku Klux Klansmen who drove into their neighborhoods wearing their long white robes and hooded masks to frighten them.
King, too, had been threatened -a bomb had been thrown at his home in Montgomery, Alabama, and later in Atlanta, Klan night riders had burned a cross in his front yard.
It was 1:15 a.m. before I left the King home, and both King and Coretta stood at the door waiting until I drove off.
At home that morning, I took a breakfast tray into the den so that I could watch TV news. When the Scripto strike story came on, my mother, spotting me as the only white person in the crowd and walking alongside King, questioning him, said, “Honey, be careful. I’m afraid someday someone’s going to try to kill that man.”
Clad in a neat, dark suit and sitting comfortably in a swivel chair in his office with its dingy green walls and bare floors, Martin Luther King didn’t seem like the revolutionary leader he was.
I had no idea that this would be my last interview with him – it was in 1968, not long before he was assassinated.
King had begun speaking of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – the president’s lifelong dream to revitalize our big cities, protect natural resources and guarantee educational opportunities for all. But that great hope, King told me, was being shot down in the rice paddies of Vietnam.
“A few years ago was a shining moment in the civil rights struggle,” he said.
“Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken as if it were an idle plaything of a society gone mad with war.”
The nation’s focus was on the war, and King’s fierce distaste for it kept recurring. “The war must be stopped,” he said.
Already, he had urged every young man who found the war “objectionable and unjust” to file as a conscientious objector.
King told me he would continue the struggle for equality that had begun in the black churches of the South, but now he had concluded that racism was only part of the problem – that poverty and the Vietnam War were major parts of it.
His outspoken opposition to the war was raising fears among civil rights leaders of a stiffening white reaction. Some felt it was a mistake to put the issues of fighting for civil rights together with opposition to the war.
“We’ll build our sha-nties – literal broken-down shanties – to dramatize and symbolize the day-to-day conditions for the way millions of people have to live,” King said.
At this time, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had begun organizing a coalition of black people, Hispanics and poor whites for the Poor People’s Campaign. His plan was to deal with the whole question of economic justice by taking this squatter army of the nation’s poor to the Mall in Washington. There, the tumble-down shanties would contrast with the cherry blossoms along the Potomac.
I never doubted that King could draw thousands for that campaign ….
King’s plans were not only to “house the troops of hopeless and embittered poor” he would lead to the capital, but also to dramatize the pain and suffering under which the hardscrabble poor lived at home.
His words reminded me of something he had said in an earlier speech: “Now we are a poor people. Don’t let anybody fool you, we’re poor. The vast majority of black people in the United States are smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society ….”
King then spoke of the alternative to nonviolence, which he never tired of repeating: “I’ve been to the ghettos; I know the resentments will blow up if something is not done quickly. We’re going all out to get this nation to respond to nonviolence. If it refuses to do this, it will entitle the Negro to so intensify his anger that we will go deeper and deeper into chaos.”
While violence created outrage, televised accounts of such events also dramatized the injustice facing his people. King used that strategy in an effort to “shame the nation into action.”
When he told me the army of protesters in the Poor People’s Campaign was to invade “the very seat of power,” I asked, “How effective would they be?”
He replied that he had few illusions about persuading Congress to action. “Congress sits there, recalcitrant, a sickness upon them. When you look at Congress, you see they are never moved to act unless the nation gets them to move. We never got the civil rights bill until we had Selma,” he said, referring to the assault on peaceful demonstrators in that Alabama town.
“A new kind of Selma is needed,” he said.
King told me he had long weighed and agonized over the risk of such action, but he felt the Poor People’s campaign was a “last-ditch chance for nonviolence.”
I asked, “What about the risk of a takeover by extremists?”
King replied, “I am convinced I can control them. If we came to a situation where our actions were leading to violence, I would call it off.”
He began talking about the enormous wealth of America, which he felt should be used through tax policies to promote chances of a decent life for the poor. Already, King had called for a guaranteed annual wage – a call that alarmed not only the business world, but the federal government.
Some black leaders and scholars thought King’s plans for his Poor People’s Campaign were becoming too militant, and a few were beginning to desert him, saying he should stick to civil rights.
King also spoke of the pressures facing him, including criticism from his own staff. There were times when he had to oppose his own followers, when he felt it necessary to take his message to a wider public. At this time, King was either admired or hated.