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Martin Luther King Jr: Remembering an icon

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, we republish highlights of his 1962 interview with The Observer.

By Kenneth Bagnell

On the evening of March 15, 1962, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a packed crowd at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Before the event, The Observer’s Kenneth Bagnell, then assistant to the editor, sat down with the American civil rights leader for a one-on-one conversation. What follows are excerpts from the interview, first published in August of that year.

On segregation in the church:
I’m a Baptist. But I’m not a Southern Baptist. That’s an all-white convention, which has made noble pronouncements about integration being Christian. But sometimes when I encounter my white Baptist brethren in the South, I wonder if they were at the meeting when the pronouncements were made. Honesty impels me to admit that at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning when we stand to sing In Christ There Is No East or West, we are standing in the most segregated hour in America.

On integration:
Old man segregation is on his death bed, and the only question is how costly the South will make the funeral. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have made some moves toward integrating, even though some are only token. Only three states, South Carolina, Alabama and the great sovereign state of Mississippi, are still holding out.

On the types of integrationists:
There’s the extreme optimist who thinks things are just about solved; there’s the extreme pessimist who sees no progress; and thirdly, there’s the realist, who agrees with the optimist that we have come a long way, but agrees with the pessimist that we have a long way to go.

On non-violence:
I like the term “non-violent resistance” to describe our movement. It’s not “passive resistance,” for that gives the wrong impression. Our resistance is active, not cowardice. But neither is it violent. Non-violent resistance weakens your enemy’s morale; it works on his conscience as he doesn’t know how to deal with it, and he’s frustrated.

On intermarriage:
We aren’t working for integration so that Negroes will marry the white man. Our basic aim is to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law. But if young people are willing to stand up to some of the inevitable problems that will arise, then they should go ahead and marry. It can be a very creative union. I’ve seen such marriages where the children born didn’t have any major problems because the parents were prepared for it themselves and prepared their children.

On proclamations:
I was in Washington and had dinner recently with President and Mrs. Kennedy. Afterward, the president said, “We’d like to show you through the White House.” After a time, we came to the Lincoln room, saw the bed where Lincoln slept and the desk where he wrote. It was in this room he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. So I smiled and said to the president, “I’d like to see you sign a second proclamation in this same room, outlawing segregation everywhere in the U.S.”

On the right to vote:
Negroes sometimes face literacy tests a PhD couldn’t answer. In Mississippi, they have been asked, “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” When they fail to answer, they can’t vote.

On freedom:
We say to white people who hurt us, “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. Raid our communities in the dark of night, leave us half dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured we will wear your defences down, and we will win freedom, and it will be not just for ourselves, but for you as well.”

A brush with greatness: Kenneth Bagnell reflects on meeting MLK
<em>The Observer</em>’s Kenneth Bagnell at his typewriter in the 1960s. Photo: Don Dutton/Toronto Star via Getty Images
The Observer’s Kenneth Bagnell at his typewriter in the 1960s. Photo: Don Dutton/Toronto Star via Getty Images
The time has come to tell a story I’ve never told. It all began by happenstance during my first post as a newly ordained minister. Together with my wife, Barbara, I’d moved to friendly and beautiful New Brunswick in 1958 to serve a pastoral charge of five small congregations near Fundy National Park.

Each Sunday, I would conduct three or four services, the largest congregation being in Alma, not far from the waters of the Bay of Fundy. There was one unique aspect to those summer congregations in Alma: in July and August, they’d have a large percentage of American visitors who came to worship. Almost every Sunday, one or two would shake my hand at the end of the service and say, “I’m a minister, too.”

It was my third summer, 1960, when as I shook hands at the doorway with a couple, the husband mentioned that he was a minister. “My name is DeWolf,” he added. Something flashed in my brain. “By any chance, are you the author of The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective?” I asked. “I am,” he said with a wide smile. I had read his book the previous year.

L. Harold DeWolf was, it turned out, a professor of systematic theology at Boston University. As congregants departed, we talked and talked on the church lawn until our wives seemed to shake their heads. But I knew he wanted to talk more, and so did I. Barbara and I asked if he and his wife, Madeline, would like to join us for tea the next evening at our manse, and they accepted.

We were about half an hour into the conversation that night when he said he had a matter he really wanted to discuss: “I always thought that Canada didn’t exclude people of colour from accommodation in hotels.” He told me he had a brilliant former student, a young black minister. DeWolf had wanted to bring him and his wife on this trip, so he wrote a letter to the Fundy Park Chalets seeking a guarantee that the couple could stay there without discrimination. The reply from the owner confirmed accommodation for DeWolf and his wife but suggested his black friends would not be welcome.

I asked DeWolf to send me the letter and promised him I’d tend to it immediately. (My member of Parliament at the time, Thomas Miller Bell, was a good man. I brought the letter to his attention, confident he’d find this type of racial bias unacceptable in a national public park.)

The conversation on that summer evening continued, and DeWolf talked more about his former student. He was exceptionally gifted, DeWolf said, the most intelligent student he’d ever had. It was obvious he was searching for words that would convey the depth of his admiration for this young minister at every level: intellectually, socially and theologically. Listening to DeWolf’s praise, Barbara and I understood that his student was not just a great scholar but a great man.

The evening wore on, and I was concerned for the DeWolfs’ narrow and winding drive on an unfamiliar road back to their accommodation in Fundy park. I gently mentioned that. We walked out onto the veranda, and Barbara and I waited there as our guests got into their car beneath the trees. DeWolf was backing out when something struck me. I waved and called to him to roll down his window. “You forgot to give me his name,” I said. “I need to know so I can watch for his achievement.” DeWolf shook his head and laughed. “His name is King. Martin Luther King.”

By 1960, King was already a prominent civil rights leader in the United States. That fall, he made national headlines after being arrested during a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Atlanta. I followed his efforts with interest. Not long after, my own life shifted significantly when I moved to Toronto to work at The Observer. In March 1962, less than two years after my conversation with DeWolf, I picked up the phone in my Observer office and heard the voice of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. “Ken,” he said, “Martin Luther King Jr. is to speak at the temple this coming week. How would you like to interview him?” Of course I said yes.

Plaut told me I was to talk to King just before his speech at Holy Blossom. I did so, and while I cannot readily recall my questions or his answers, I remember some of the last words we exchanged as we chatted afterward. “Dr. King,” I said, “I met your professor Dr. DeWolf and his wife once, back when I was a minister near Fundy National Park.” He smiled softly and in his beautiful voice replied, “You did? Why I remember that. Coretta and I, we were going to go on that trip, but something happened. I never knew what . . . for some reason we just didn’t go.” I wasn’t about to tell him the reason.

Rev. Kenneth Bagnell is a writer in Toronto.

This story first appeared in The Observer's April 2018 edition with the title "Remembering an icon."

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