Blog: My Day With Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Burt Ross and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Only my dear departed Jewish mother Rose Ross would look at this photo and ask, “Who is that middle aged man with a mustache standing next to my handsome son?” Thanks, Mom. The rest of you who are slightly more objective might inquire, “Who is that person standing next to Dr. King?” Continue reading and it will all become clear.

Back in January of 1965, just a year-and-a-half after the famous “I Have a Dream” speech (I was in Washington to hear it), and three months after Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize (at the time, the youngest person to do so), I had the extraordinary opportunity and privilege to host Dr. King in my capacity as president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Young Democrats. Yes, even then, I must have been one of those so-called liberal elites. 

It was a simpler time. Dr. King flew by himself on a commercial plane (no entourage, no private plane) from New York City to Boston’s Logan Airport. He was running late because he had mistakenly gone to the recently named JFK Airport rather than to LaGuardia. 

When he arrived, I greeted him and introduced him to my college roommate T. D. Pawley, who was African American, and I assume still is. T.D. was a member of the same Black fraternity that Dr. King belonged to, and no sooner had they been introduced than they were busily engaged in some complicated ritual handshake. I asked Dr. King if he could show me the inner workings of this special greeting, but all he did was laugh. 

I then drove Dr. King in my small Chevy to Harvard’s Memorial Church, where he delivered the Sunday sermon. How I wish I remembered what we talked about during the drive, but unfortunately I was too preoccupied with driving safely and getting him to his various destinations on time. 

I do recall during the sermon, Dr. King using the expression, “The abyss of annihilation.” His powerful voice filled the cavernous church whose walls contained the names of Harvard’s sons who had sacrificed their lives in this country’s wars.

Dr. King left the church and headed, again without escort, to Boston, where he visited friends for the afternoon. I picked Dr. King up at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, and we drove back to Harvard for a private dinner with about 20 muckety-mucks. But before we got there, we walked through the dining hall at my Harvard dorm. Around 250 students had waited just for this one brief moment when Dr. King walked through their dining hall. As soon as Dr. King entered, they all gave him a resounding standing ovation. You could tell he was moved, as were we all.

At the private dinner, two associates of Dr. King showed up. They were not bodyguards, of that I am sure. During dessert, one of these individuals mentioned that Dr. King would like to take a brief rest before he spoke before the Harvard-Radcliffe Young Dems, and did I know a suitable place. “My room,” I suggested. 

Incredibly, Dr. King rested in my bed while I waited in the living room. I then drove him to his talk which, at $3 a ticket (we are talking 1960s dollars), was so in demand we held it at the local high school which could accommodate more people than any auditorium at Harvard.

After Dr. King spoke, I presented him with a $2,000 check for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Imagine, if you possibly can, how little that amount is compared to the six figures somebody of much lesser stature earns today for a speech. 

With everything else going on in his life, Dr. King took the time out of his busy schedule to travel to Boston and help raise money for his worthy organization.  

I drove Dr. King back from Cambridge to the train station in Boston. We got a police escort. It had started to snow, and my little Chevy skidded on the ice. All I could picture was the headline the following day: “Harvard Student Kills Dr. King.” We didn’t talk much along the way. Dr. King looked tired and old for his age. It had been a very long day.

When we got to the Boston train station, one of Dr. King’s associates reappeared, spoke to the porter on the train, and asked him not to have Dr. King awakened in the terminal when the train arrived in New York City in the wee hours of the morning.

Just then, a photographer for the Harvard Crimson asked if I would like to have my photo taken with Dr. King. The photo is one of my most cherished possessions and, in case of a fire, this photo gets packed along with pictures of my family.

Dr. King boarded the train, and I never saw him again. A little more than three years later he was gone. He never made it to 40. Today, our nation honors the birthdays of four people—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Only one of them lived in my lifetime, and I was so fortunate to have met him.