One afternoon in 1967, I was sitting alone at a table for four at the Hilton, scanning the lunchtime crowd. Business types dashed in and out, their starched shirts flashing bright white in the faux marble tabletops. I played with my fork and waited, chewing the corner off one of the paper napkins.
A familiar voice had come over the phone on my desk that morning. “Frank? This is Martin.” He told me he was in town again for a few days and wanted to meet over lunch. “Good. Let‘s try the Hilton at one,” I said. It was about ten minutes after one when the headwaiter stiffly entered the room leading two black men, one about my size wearing a brown coat and the other a tall, thin, gray-haired figure in a lawyer’s delicately striped three- piece suit. King caught sight of me and waved his hat, then handed it with his coat to the man and strode over. “This is Chauncey Eskridge, Frank,” he said as he shook my hand. He draped his suit jacket over the back of a chair and sat down. Eskridge and I shook hands and he sat down next to King, but did not take off his jacket.
If Eskridge remembered meeting me, he gave no sign of it. He was visible around town as the attorney for Alderman Claude Holman of the fourth ward, one of the more odious machine characters I knew. He had a reputation as a first-class lawyer who, if he’d been white, might have been a major player in corporate law. Lately I’d seen him around in the company of the local SCLC leaders.
“Chauncey is doing legal work with the Chicago office of the SCLC,” King explained. “We‘d like to suggest an idea to you and see if you think it might work.” I told him I was all ears, although I wasn’t much of an expert on the kinds of things the SCLC did.
“That’s just it, Frank,” King said. “The fund-raising event at the Chicago Amphitheatre was a big success, and we‘d like to try it again – on a bigger scale. We don‘t have the know-how ourselves; we thought you might be willing to supervise again.” He laid out a plan for six benefit concerts in major towns, each with a lineup of big stars and a celebrity as the honorary producer.
“Of course, running six events is a job of much greater magnitude than just the one, so we’d insist on paying you the customary fee,” Eskridge put in.
I thought quickly. True, if l did this it was going to eat up a lot of time and energy. But actual direct expenses would be minimal: some airplane flights, some long-distance phone calls. “How about you set me up with a WATS line, and leave it at that?” I proposed. Agreed.
lt took Eskridge a half hour or so to fill us in on where the project stood. The first show was to be at the Oakland Coliseum, with Aretha Franklin headlining and Harry Belafonte as producer. Once again, showtime was six weeks away.
“How’d you like to spend a couple of weeks on the coast?” I asked Dick Gassen when I got back to the office.
Dick hadn’t been gone a week before his reports began to turn sour. A few days before the show was to go on, I picked up the phone and I knew from his voice that he’d rather be home.
“The good news is that the Longshoremen are pushing this all the way,” he said. “They seem to be putting everything they have into it. The bad news is that they’re not doing it because they love us. They’re doing it because they’ll do anything they can to make things difficult for the Panthers. These people do not get along real well, Frank.”
It was the end of 1966 now, and the aura of a movement that could do no wrong had evaporated in front of us. Dr. King and his movement had been able to transform a broad section of society, but now the movement was beginning to tear at the edges.
With one thing and another, King was not the figure of universal respect he had been months before. The Black Panthers were not at all convinced that King’s faith in nonviolence was going to bring fundamental change. And in fairness, its limitations were becoming clearer by the day. How far could you trust the establishment to play by the rules when Oakland police were shooting black kids with impunity? Meanwhile, King’s right flank — the relatively conservative businessmen and ministers who had been his early core supporters — was getting anxious. King had come out firmly against the war in Vietnam, something that was way beyond the mandate they thought they had given him.
I tried to describe things to King on the phone that afternoon. “This Oakland show is a mess, Doc,” I said. (I’d started to call him “Doc” — it felt more comfortable than “Martin.”) “We have competing factions pulling every which direction, and they’re giving us ultimatums when they don‘t get their way. This could be a real disaster.” The coalition in Houston, the next location, was tearing into pieces as well.
“Well, I don‘t know if this show is going to be a lot of use to you politically,” I said. “And I know it isn’t likely to make much money. I’d recommend that we cancel the rest of them and spend some time rethinking this idea.” There was a pause.
“Can’t do that,” he answered. “There’s too much tied up in this. We have to go forward, one way or another.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do, then?” I asked, exasperated. “Telephone calls you can make?”
“Don’t worry, Frank, things will work out,” he said. “The ministers have been rock-solid before, and they won’t let me down this time. Let‘s see it through.”
“All right,” I said. “But just to be on the safe side, I’m going to go out to Oakland myself and see if I can give Dick a hand the day of the show.”
“I’ll see you there, then,” he agreed.