By Rhonda C. Cooper,
I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. one spring afternoon in April 1970. I was lying on my grandmother’s infamous pink couch in the family room, watching the black-and-white floor model television and the wicker-basket wall clock with white hands when my grandmother came home from work with him. I was by then exhausted from boredom. I had been inside the house for several days with the mumps. I had grown weary of the sardine-oil soaked diaper fastened around my face to reduce the swelling.
My grandmother, Dorothy Hall Jackson, was a caregiver. She had pet names given to her by our family and friends. They were Aunt Dot, Ms. Dorothy, Ms. Jackson and “DJ.” “DJ” was my favorite, but I called her grandmama. She was my best person (I can’t say friend), and she knew more about me than anyone else because of the amount of time we spent together while my mother worked.
“DJ” instilled in me a love and appreciation for being Catholic and traveling aboard trains and buses; both provided me with opportunities to read a lot. I had been affectionately nicknamed “Four Eyes” by my grandmother’s brother, “Uncle Brother,” after I began wearing glasses at age 4. Thus, my grandmother knew how much bringing Dr. King into our home would mean to me – a loquacious and inquisitive six-year-old bookworm.
My grandmother introduced Dr. King to me without any fanfare or ceremony. She gently placed him beside me and slipped away gingerly to change clothes and begin cooking. The man before me resembled all the other men that I knew in my little girl world. He was brown, had a mustache, neat hair about his head, and a warm smile. Dr. King was right next to me in my house and on my now, extraordinary couch.
For one known to talk “in and out of season” as my grandmother so often said, I could not bring myself to utter the slightest sound. I turned my head in the direction of the kitchen to look for her. But the thickness and moisture of the stinky diaper pressed against the left side of my face prevented me from doing so. I was quickly reminded of the very reason I had come to meet Dr. King in the first place. I was home from school with the bumpy contagion. He and I had become instant friends, and my unsightly and odorous predicament did not matter at all to him.
I do not know what it was about his presence, but I began to fidget. I wanted to move a bit, but I knew any movement on my part would disturb him since I was propped with pillows and lightly buried under the covers. The slightest change in my position would cause him to move, and I absolutely did not want that to happen. What I wanted more than anything was for my grandmother to reappear so that I could thank her. I wanted her to see how truly happy I was at that very moment.
Just as quickly as my heart and pulse had begun to race, I then began to settle into his company. I was looking at a man whose outstretched arms showed love and support for little brown girls and boys. I started smiling because I, too, was a little brown girl, and he was with me. I wanted to get even closer, so I scooted down to get more comfortable.
I then opened my newest book, Meet Martin Luther King Jr., by James T. deKay. Black and white pictures greeted me. Most of them were of him smiling with his wife and children.
But there was one that stuck out. It was of Martin Luther King being led away by two policemen. It was time for me to read about the man I was destined to meet. As I turned the pages, I saw that it was a chapter book with words printed in just the right size.
Chapter 1 showed a wide-opened mouth speaking into two microphones. The first printed page of the book used the words, “fighter” “fought” and “fight,” to describe Martin Luther King and his work. I had to know more so I continued my quest. I read every chapter. They detailed his life as a young boy in Atlanta; his belief in equality for blacks during the Jim Crow Era; his courage to practice non-violence during boycotts and sit-ins; his sacrifices in being jailed for demanding voter rights; his speeches and marches to end segregation; his dreams of a better America for black and white children; his award of the Nobel Prize for peace in Norway; and, finally, his tragic death in Memphis.
I was transformed by all that had been written about the “Drum Major for Justice.” Dr. King’s deeds emboldened me to commit to a six-year old notion of law and fairness. I reread the book countless times. According to my grandmother, I declared at 7 that I wanted to be a lawyer because no one could talk and help people the way that I could.
I have now been a lawyer well over half of my life. What I experienced upon meeting Martin Luther King Jr. that special day while at home with the mumps forged our lifelong friendship because I was that young girl he would forever embrace.
Happy Birthday Dr. King and Thank you “DJ.”