Sort of a Short Guy

David Berger

© Copyright 2020 by David Berger

Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every movement has its leaders, and this story is about one of them. And every movement has its members, and this story is about one of them, me. Dr. King was the outstanding American of the Twentieth Century. I was privileged to "stride towards freedom" with him for a little while.

Back in the day New York University had two campuses. One was in Greenwich Village, where it still is, anchored by Main Building and Commerce Building on the east side of Washington Square Park. The Village campus is still there, while the dormitories have metastasized all over Lower Manhattan. The other campus, and most people don’t know about it any more, was in the Bronx, far, it seemed to us, to the north.

The campus in the Village was, well, in the Village, with all the fun, braininess and weirdness you would expect down there in the 1960s. The Beat movement was still very much alive. The folksingers were going full blast. (I helped organize the folksingers union.) By the mid-Sixties many of my friends, and I, had our own apartments on the Lower East Side (not yet called the “East Village” by real estate agents). I sometimes tell people that I went to undergrad and grad school in a small corner of Heaven.

The campus in the Bronx was in another world. The NYU song still goes, “Oh grim, grey Palisades thy shadows // Upon the rippling Hudson falls.” That sort of set the tone for NYU uptown. It was sort of provincial and dominated by the School of Engineering. NYU sold it away in 1973 when the neighborhood around it got rough.

Anyway, it was the winter of ’60-’61. It was a Friday afternoon in January. The four Fridays that year were the 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th. I figure it was probably the 27th, which was after the end of Finals and before the start of the Spring Term. It couldn’t have been the 20th because that was the day of Kennedy’s inauguration, and I remember watching it at a friend’s house.

So I had subwayed my freshman ass from the Village Campus up to the Bronx, and then climbed up the hill to the sort of mini-plateau where the college buildings were. I remember it was a grey, cold day, with a nasty wind blowing with that smell of snow that came that night.

Compared to the snug warren of buildings of NYU Downtown, the Uptown Campus seemed to me what a campus in Kansas might have looked like: a large, roughly square, open area surrounded by brick buildings, plus an occasional Greek temple. At the west end, overlooking the Harlem River, Upper Manhattan, and the Hudson itself, was the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, which, back then, held busts of great Americans like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.*

Although the campus was nearly empty, I remember it didn’t take me long to find the room where the meeting was taking place. I was glad for the warmth in the building. It was nearly sunset, and the room had tall, bright windows facing west, so it was cold in the room, and the sun was already going down. There were maybe twenty-five people in the room, which was just a classroom: with folding chairs, a wooden desk in front and a blackboard. An older student and a faculty member were sitting on both sides of the desk, waiting for the speaker. I presumed they were the president of whatever student organization was sponsoring the event and its faculty advisor. They both looked kind of nervous. The rest of the room was quiet, with more short haircuts than you’d see downtown.

The door opened and the speaker came in. We all turned. He was sort of a short guy, wearing a hat and a black overcoat. He was alone. It was Martin Luther King.

Mercifully, the introductions were short. Dr. King spoke for about an hour. For the life of me, I can’t remember anything of what he said. I don’t recall any of his words. But I remember the tone of his voice. It’s implanted in my skin. He was warm, funny, hopeful. Again, I wish I could remember what he said.

There were a few questions. Most of them more statements than questions: the kind to show the speaker and the room how smart and sincere they are. Dr. King was polite. I do remember him saying something about the ongoing boycotts of Woolworth stores going on around the country. (Remember this was almost exactly a year since the first sit-in, in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1st, 1960.)

Afterwards, I approached him, as he stood in the middle of the room. I introduced myself, and we shook hands. Maybe we talked for a minute. I mentioned that I was part of the NAACP at the NYU Downtown Campus. And that I brought greetings from its members. Then he had to go somewhere. I rode back downtown to Manhattan.

I later worked in the office of the March on Washington with Bayard Rustin, but I only saw Dr. King again in ’63 at the March. It was hot. He was the last speaker after loads of celebrities (like Josephine Baker and Charlton Heston); entertainers (like Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary); and speakers from the “Big Six” who had sponsored the March: CORE – James Farmer, NAACP – Roy Wilkins, SNCC – John Lewis (still in Congress), the Urban League – Whitney Young and Sleeping Car Porters Union (and organized labor) – A. Philip Randolph .

No one was much listening by then. Everyone was tired and ready for the long bus rides home. Then, about thirty seconds into “I Have a Dream,” a quarter of a million people went dead silent for about six minutes. The applause started as a ripple. It went on for longer than the speech. After that, Bayard Rustin wished us all well and wished up God-speed home.

I saw him again a few months later in ’63, at a memorial and protest rally in Foley Square in New York about the murder of the four little girls in Birmingham. Just after the President of Vietnam had been murdered and just before the Kennedy assassination.

Then, in ’68, he was gone. This is 2020. That meeting in the Bronx was fifty-nine ago. How many remember that little meeting but me.

I’m an old Brooklyn Lefty, living in Manhattan with my wife of 26 years: the finest jazz singer in NYC. I’m a father and a grandfather. I’ve been a caseworker, construction worker, letter carrier, teacher, proofreader and union organizer. I love life, my wife and the world. I hope to help us all escape destruction. I’ve been active in virtually every “progressive” political movement in the US since 1960, including the Civil Rights Movement, the movement against the Vietnam War, and on and on till Occupy Wall Street and beyond.
In 2014, VERSO published Paul Buhle’s and my graphic history of American bohemia: “Bohemians.”

* In 2017, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were removed from the Hall of Fame. Martin Luther King has no bust there.

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