My Dad - MLK - 1957 - San Francisco Interview

This article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1997. If the paper ever takes it down I want you to have it here:

In the late spring of 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. was struggling to gain
control of the budding civil rights movement. On a ridiculously smaller
scale, I, then a cub reporter on the San Francisco News, was attempting to
prove to myself and my editors that I could do more than write amusing
feature stories. The young minister’s path and mine would cross - more
accurately, I’d be thrown across his - the morning I was assigned to
interview him at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Though King had received national and international attention after the
successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, his civil rights leadership
rested on soft Alabama clay. Though later, the NAACP helped fund King’s
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in mid-’56, NAACP officials were
publicly belittling the new organization, which they believed threatened
their activities in the South.

During the NAACP’s 1956 convention, held at San Francisco’s Civic
Auditorium, then-NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall called King “a boy on a
man’s errand.” Elsewhere, even the great African American leader W.E.B.
DuBois said, “If passive resistance could conquer racial hatred . . .
Gandhi and Negroes like King would have shown the world how to conquer war
itself.”

Such not-so-friendly fire came on the heels of attacks by enemies in
Montgomery. Segregationists had bombed King’s and other boycott leaders’
homes. When suspected bombers were arrested, a local court set them free.
Death threats to King and his family soon became as common as bulk mail
advertising. Police themselves began stalking and harassing the young
leader, arresting him on charges that ranged from driving 30 mph in a
25-mile zone to conspiracy to prevent the operation of a business.
As if King needed more trouble, members of his Montgomery Improvement
Association, the organization that the SCLC would replace, began bickering
with each other. Some tried to back out of the boycott, and others charged
King with excessive travel and getting too much attention. Discouraged by
the problems he faced during this period, King would soon tell singer
Harry Belafonte, “I don’t know where this movement is going.”

By spring 1957, despite having been praised in a Time magazine cover
story, and profiled in the New York Times as well as appearing on Meet the
Press, King had had little success spreading his message of nonviolence
through the South. In frustration, he decided to capitalize on his new
media attention by writing his autobiography, Stride Toward Freedom, and
by scheduling numerous public appearances. He began to work at a manic
pace, writing, traveling and speaking. By the end of the year, he’d cover
780,000 miles and give 208 speeches. One of his stops would be San
Francisco.

I didn’t ask why I, the newspaper’s least experienced reporter, was being
assigned to interview King; it didn’t even occur to me. I was 24 years old
and King was only 27. Despite the worldwide attention he’d begun to
receive, Martin Luther King still wasn’t big news here. In preparing this
article, San Francisco Public Library researcher Kathy Laughin and I found
only one news item about King and the bus boycott in 1957, prior to June -
a single paragraph announcing that local ministers were sending the
boycott leader a letter of support. The Examiner librarian found that the
morning papers, the Chronicle and The Examiner (which was then still a
morning paper), and the other afternoon paper, the Call-Bulletin, likewise
gave the rising civil rights leader - and the Montgomery bus boycott -
almost no coverage.

My path toward King began at a U-shaped table called the copy desk. In the
U’s center stood a man who never, at least in my presence, cast a smile. I
know he had a last name but doubt he had a first. Secretly, I called him
“Hatchet.” Periodically, he folded up sheets of paper that had been
churned out by the United Press or Associated Press wire service machines
or been sent over from the city desk, wrote a word-number on the outside
and, without even looking, slapped them hard onto one of the sharp
foot-long nails that stuck up in front each of his cowering sub-editors.
None of the sub-eds cowered more than I, or had more reason to.
Once, given the number “200″ on a U.P. feature story by Merriam Smith
about a golf game among President Eisenhower and his cronies, I cut out of
the approximately 500-word piece every reference to government matters,
like whether Ike thought the Air Force deserved to get a $22 million, as
opposed to a $24 million, budget increase, and left in more personal
material, like a reminiscence about Patton’s dog (The President puzzled
over why “Willie” had always growled at him) and Ike’s mysterious distaste for
breakfast sausages. ( “Lately,” said the president, “they seem to back
up.” ) I was certain that readers would doze over the budget speculation.
“Hatchet” had another notion. The sheets quickly re-descended onto my
spike. A small note was scrawled across the top: “Delete everything (two
underlines) you left in and put back everything (three underlines) you
took out.”

I was soon transferred to the city desk. My first assignment was to
investigate the report of a body at the bottom of a lightwell on Hayes
Street. I went to an apartment building, opened a second-story window and
looked down to see ghastly eyes staring up at me out of a gray face with
blood trickling from its mouth. Ack! A suicide, police told me. For months
afterward, I closed my eyes whenever someone was about to bite into a
strawberry- or raspberry-filled doughnut.

Much troubled, I began to dislike news. News, it seemed to me, licensed
any lunatic who wanted to burn down a building, shoot a politician or
undress on Market Street to determine what I did, thought and wrote about
on a given day. A real reporter’s test, it seemed to me, was going up to
the devastated loved one of a person who’s just been shot and saying, “Got
any recent pictures?” And a real reporter’s life also went too fast. I
wanted to sit at the back of the city room, free from deadlines, honing
words inspired by pleasant encounters.

My feature writing debut on the News came at the Golden Gate Theater with
the opening of the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. I interviewed a
real-life shrinking man, thoughtfully provided by the movie promoters. As
we spoke, the shrinking man rose from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-1, then shrank
back to 5-8. Other stories that appeared under my byline included an
interview with a talking dog, an article about a jackhammer operator who
hadn’t felt the big 1956 earthquake and a piece about a Berkeley sidewalk
art show whose first prize went to Betsy, a chimp at the Baltimore zoo.
I was constantly being given advice by editors and fellow reporters:
“Features aren’t real news.” “Gauguin drew dogs that were just dogs before
he got into all those dibs and dabs.” “You’ve got to learn to bring back
the bacon.” I watched the paper’s real reporters - Joe Sheridan, Mary
Crawford, Bill Stief and the two George’s, Murphy and Duschek - go out and
bring back slabs of it.

I tried.

One morning, I thought I’d done a great job. I’d beaten the rival
Call-Bulletin reporter to the only available phone, minutes before
deadline for both afternoon papers, with my report of an overnight robbery
at the El Rey Theater. After I breathlessly spilled all of my information,
the News’ rewrite man, Sheridan, said, “How much?” I’d given him the method of entry, the size of the safe, the cigarette butts on the carpet and could have told him the color of the
manager’s hair or the smell the dynamite had left, but . . . how much?
“How much what?” I asked. “Money,” he snapped. “Oh, boy! I’ll be right
back.” I went to the manager and was given an amount. When I returned to
the phone, the Call reporter was using it.

I kept on trying.

A piece of very big news landed on my lap. I didn’t know it was very big
news. How could the police report of a pair of men who’d forced another
into a car, robbed him of a dollar and then released him be very big news?
I typed it up as a one-paragraph story. A few minutes after handing in my
copy I was told to make it longer; it was to be the main front-page
headline story. Only as I was rewriting it did I realize why. The headline
said it all:

TWO GIVEN 25-YEAR TERMS
FOR $1 KIDNAP-ROBBERY

I scored a less accidental scoop when I was sent to the Hall of Justice
and told to get the story of a bank robbery. I found that the bank-teller
who’d single-handedly captured a hold-up man was being questioned in a
room closed off to all but detectives. The story was in there. A detective
had left his hat on a nearby table. I picked it up, put it on, opened the
interrogation room door and, imitating Bogart as Sam Spade, said, “Get
that bank teller out here right away.” He was sent out. I introduced
myself and put him on the phone to Crawford. Before my deception was
discovered, the teller had given his story to Mary. A dirty business. But
we had a scoop.

Is the scoop why I was assigned to interview the visiting minister?
Or did my editors see King’s visit as just another feature story?
I arrived a few minutes late at the sparsely furnished hotel room and sat
at the end of a long table, opposite the interviewee. His head was tilted
down and to one side. When he looked up to see who’d come in, he seemed
shy, perhaps nervous. The look gave me one of those up-the-spine jolts of
electricity. I nodded at him. He wore a well-starched white shirt, a dark
brown suit and a tie of the narrow sort worn in the mid to late-’50s. It
was the very same color as the suit. The older-looking of two local black
ministers seated on each side of him introduced him.

King spoke in a low, articulate, well-controlled monotone. He said that
the Alabama boycott had been inspired by the teachings of Gandhi and that
he and the SCLC were now working to begin other boycotts throughout the
South. His statement was very short. The older minister invited questions.
King’s look had put me off, and I was afraid go first. But neither of the
other two reporters, each in his late 50s or early 60s, said a word. In
the face of the increasingly painful silence, I finally offered two or
three questions. I don’t recall specifically what they were, but I do
remember that King’s answers laid out a plan to spread his nonviolent
movement throughout the South and then beyond. It was only much later that
I looked back and saw that he’d given an outline of what came to be called
the civil rights movement.

I submitted three pages of copy, as much as I had ever turned in. I had
time to prepare it carefully. There was no hurry. The story wasn’t being
treated as breaking news. The next day my piece, reduced to a paragraph,
appeared on an inner page of the paper’s first or “Home” edition.
(Recently I searched through the late spring and early summer “Final”
editions available at the San Francisco Public Library. It isn’t among
them, so I have to believe that sometime between the first and the fourth,
or last, edition, it was nudged out by other news.

Troubled by the placement of the story, I asked why it had been severely
reduced, working up my nerve enough to say
“I think that stuff is important.” I was told unequivocally but politely
that it was not.

Of course! Had it been considered important, the Call-Bulletin would have
sent a reporter and The Examiner and Chronicle wouldn’t have sent tired
old men. And the News wouldn’t have sent me.

I’d only once before complained about the treatment of something I’d
written. It was a “mood piece” about a jazz musician named Judy Tristano,
whose group played soft Monday night music for weekend-weary Beats at The
Cellars on Green Street. I was praised for the writing but the piece never
appeared. I was told it didn’t belong in a family newspaper. I didn’t like
the answer but, thinking about how my mother might respond to the
favorable sketch of beatniks and their music, I understood.

This time, I didn’t.

I left the newspaper within days, possibly before my absence was
requested, to enroll as a graduate student in creative writing at San
Francisco State College. Soon, I was teaching at Riordan High School. I
started those new adventures with the knowledge that, at least once, I’d
brought it back.

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