Marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mon, 01/20/2020 - 10:00am

This essay by M. Greenaway was first posted in 2016. We do so again in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. today. 

In August of 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing President Johnson to take whatever steps necessary to win the Vietnam war. Three years later, even though it was not going well, the war still enjoyed popular support. However, cracks in that support were beginning to appear. Student protests erupted on college campuses around the country. (I was a philosophy professor at Rutgers University at the time and participated in a campus-wide assembly where three of us provided a critique of what had been taking place in Vietnam.)

Shortly thereafter, in April of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a historic speech highly at Riverside Church in Manhattan that was critical of the war. This was followed 11 days later by a protest march from Central Park to the United Nations, the first major Vietnam War protest march of its kind in the country. I decided to attend.

An estimated 300,000 of us assembled in Central Park. With camera in hand, I went to the front of the line and joined the press corps — teams from the major TV networks as well as photographers from several major newspapers. There were perhaps 20 of us all told. (Strangely enough, and lucky for me, no one was checking credentials.) Behind us was a cordon of marshals locked arm-in-arm and behind them were Dr. King and famed baby doctor Benjamin Spock.

As we walked through the streets of upper Manhattan, what was most striking was the absolute and eerie silence, resulting clearly from apprehension concerning possible reactions from supporters of the war. For example, might someone throw a heavy object down on us from the 40th floor of an adjoining building?

The press was eager to get an interview with Dr. King and was pushing against the cordon of marshals, hoping to get closer. The head marshal reassured us: “Get back! You’ll all get your chance.” He then allowed a crew of three from NBC to go through and approach Dr. King. When they were through, the head marshal turned immediately to me and said: “You!”

The cordon opened and allowed me through. My camera was a twin-lens reflex, meaning that the viewfinder was not up at my eye but down at my waist. So I was looking down, trying to focus the camera and walking backwards at the same time. Thinking I may have muffed the first shot, I advanced the film, refocused, cocked the shutter and took a second shot (the accompanying image). Amidst the confusion, I had apparently slowed down a bit in my backwards journey, so that the gap between Dr. King and me had closed to two or three feet.

Concerned, the head marshal reached over Dr. King’s shoulder, pointing at me, and yelled “Move faster!” (His pointing finger is visible in the photo.)

I took many pictures of many celebrities that day — Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young, Pete Seeger and others. But my encounter with Dr. King, and the chance to record a piece of history, was something very very special. A year later he was dead.