Local priest recalls meeting, photographing Dr. King


I saw Dr. Martin Luther King up close twice in the summer and fall of 1967. In those days I always carried a 35mm camera in my pocket; so I’m not sure on which occasion I snapped the images that I now treasure.

The first time was on a hot Saturday afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio, where I was in a summer program to learn pastoral ministry skills right after completing my studies in the Franciscan seminary. My supervisors thought that I was out visiting orphanages and nursing facilities, but I now confess that I was actually on street corners registering voters. I also volunteered my time with an ecumenical pastors’ association that was organizing a boycott of a major grocery chain that practiced racial discrimination. When King came to town for a series of outdoor speeches, I drove the flatbed truck on which his podium was mounted.

The second encounter was at a churchyard on the south side of Chicago, where I was beginning my career as a high school English teacher. It was at a rally, as I recall, to prepare marchers for a demonstration to protest discriminatory “red-lining” real estate practices.

Since I supervised the school newspaper and yearbook at Hales Franciscan, I had a handy darkroom to develop and print the pictures I had taken. That was before the days of digital photography.

Looking back, I remember being very frightened at these events. Not only did we need to worry about being arrested, but we also had to face hostile reactions from fellow religious and Catholics—some of whom openly labeled Dr. King “a Communist agitator.”

When he was assassinated in 1968 not even a year later, it was a painful pastoral duty to accompany my students during the unrest and rioting that engulfed Chicago and so many places in America.

I still have the three close-up photos that I snapped back in 1967. As we commemorate his death fifty years ago, I treasure them as personal “icons” of a prophet whom I was privileged to briefly meet.