Stories that feature ‘Martin Luther King’

King and I (1)

This story takes place in 1966. It was told on July 7th, 2011 by Frank.  1 Comment

Dick had gone out for lunch, leaving me and Margaret in the railroad apartment that was the Triangle Productions office. Standing alone in my part of the flat, in what had been the dining room, I could hear Margaret shuffling through papers in the filing cabinet in the room overlooking Superior Street. I cleared some debris off my chair, kicked my shoes off and threw my tie on top of one of the heaps of books and paper that covered my long wooden desk.

Someone knocked on the door and Margaret went to answer it. There was a silence, and then she called out, “Franlk?” I sighed, got up and shuffled over to the archway that opened onto the living room. A solidly buiIt man in a brown coat smiled at me from the landing, crossed the threshold and held out a hand, which I took. “Dr. King,” I stuttered. He laughed and said, “Martin. Call me Martin.” He was alone except for a thin, sharp-faced young man who followed him in the door, hauling a heavy black briefcase. “We were in the area, Frank, and I thought we might stop in and interrupt you,” Dr. King said, hanging his coat over the back of a chair and straightening his tie. “Have you met Andy Young?” I shook hands with the younger man. I fished around under the desk for my shoes with one hand while I tried to stuff my shirttail into my trousers with the other.

Giving up on the shoes, I motioned the two of them into the room we still used as a sort of living room, pointing to a pair of chairs facing a sofa. I sat down on the sofa. I knew it was my turn to say something, but I just looked at Dr. King, waiting for him.

He was about my height, but he was not as stocky, which is to say he was not nearly as big a man as I’d guessed from the pictures I’d seen. He looked about the same age, too — nearing forty. His presence filled up the room in a way that I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. It was the kind of presence that’s made up of understatement.

The last time I saw Dr. King

This story takes place in 1968. It was told on July 5th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The Summit Hotel was not my favorite place to stay in New York. It was a big modern thing, all glass doors in black marble walls, more of a place for straight-ahead businessmen than I liked. I preferred something smaller, less formal and far away from Midtown. But I was at the Summit on March 25, 1968 whether I liked it or not. All the hotels l liked were booked up.

I was in New York to see someone about a booking, I don’t remember who, and I was already late. Irritably I dropped my bags off in my room, walked down the hall and stood waiting for the elevator, realizing that I should have gone straight to the Village from the airport.

The bell dinged, the elevator doors opened, and there was Dr. King, holding out one hand to shake mine while his other hand kept the door from sliding shut. He was with Ralph Abernathy, another of the SCLC guys, and a couple of younger men I didn’t recognize.

“How about this! It’s my friend Frank Fried,” King told Abernathy as I boarded the elevator. “How are you, Frank? And how is Francoise?”

“Just fine, thank you,” I lied. Francoise was not well at all, but he didn’t need to know that. I told him he was looking hale, and wondered what he was in New York for. “We’re meeting with Harry tonight,” he replied, surprised. “Aren’t you going to be there?”

I told him Harry hadn’t mentioned anything to me, but King urged me to come along anyway. “It would be useful to have you there, Frank,” he said. I begged off. I didn’t think I could get out of my meeting downtown.

“So, what’s the word from the Kennedy camp?” he asked.

“Wrong guy to ask about that,” I protested.

“I might have known you’d be a skeptic,” he laughed. “What could have given me the idea you were a Kennedy man?” I shrugged.

“I’m thrilled that the Democrats are finally facing up to this horrible war,” l said, “but that doesn’t mean l think a primary fight inside the party is going to help anything.” The elevator spilled us into the lobby, where we stood blocking traffic until King motioned us off to one side. l couldn’t help noticing the stares from the upper-middle-class business types walking in and out of the elevators.

King was looking at me, waiting. “lt’s not that l don’t think it means something that the Democrats are dealing with it,” l said. “But we can’t forget that it’s only the struggle that’s going on in the streets that has forced it onto the agenda. That and the fact that we’re getting the shit kicked out of us in Vietnam.” King looked at me and said, “You see, Frank, the only way we can stop the war is if we shake up the Establishment, and the only man who can do that is Rockefeller.”

Ten minutes had gone by, and King and his men had to be off. l looked hard at him as we shook hands. l thought – and I still think – that Dr. King genuinely loved the masses, took responsibility for them. You could say he gave his life for them. But l don’t think he ever fully trusted them to solve their own problems. ln the final analysis, we were left with Rockefeller.

l wanted to chase after him, to stop him and say, “But, but…” But l didn‘t. Ten days later, he was dead.

In the arena

This story takes place in 1967. It was told on June 2nd, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

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.