Sort of a Short Guy
Copyright 2020 by David Berger
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
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
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.
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.
it was the winter of ’60-’61. It was a Friday afternoon
in January. The four Fridays that year were the 6th,
20th and 27th. I figure
it was probably the
27th, which was after the end of Finals and
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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