HIGH POINT, N.C. -- As we approach the half-century mark since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, not many in the Piedmont Triad will feel the shock and pain like Bob Brown.
“It’s been 50 years. And I’m still living with this thing,” Brown said.
Since the early 1960s, Brown has run a public relations firm in High Point. It was his expertise in PR, fundraising and logistics that caught King’s attention.
The two met in 1962 and Brown immediately started volunteer work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King led.
“We started that relationship. And I started to get money to him from different people and organizations,” Brown told me recently during an interview in his office.
By the spring of 1968, Brown says King seemed to know what was about to happen.
“He said, ‘I can see people following me and the kind of people and how they look in my eyes and the hate.’ But he said, ‘I’m OK. I’ve connected with God. I’m trying to do the right thing.’”
And doing the right thing on April 4, 1968 was supporting the striking African-American city sanitation workers in Memphis. Brown was scheduled to meet with King back in Atlanta that very afternoon and was sitting in King’s office when King’s executive assistant got a phone call.
“So she turned around and said, ‘Bob, this is King on the phone. He said he’s not going to be able to get back because he was going to have to speak again that night.’ And I said, ‘OK. Tell him I’ll meet him next week or in the next few days.’”
Brown then boarded a plane in Atlanta which would take him to the Charlotte-Douglas Airport. He planned to rent a car in Charlotte for the drive back home to High Point.
“I go into the airport (at Charlotte) and people are running all over the place,” he said. “And so I see a skycap. He’s rolling his little buggy along and he’s walking fast. And I stopped him. I said, ‘Man, what’s going on at this airport? Is everybody crazy?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Man, what the hell is wrong with you? They just killed Martin Luther King Jr.’ That’s how I found out.”
Early the next morning, with violence and fires raging in Memphis and across the country, Brown got a phone call from Dora McDonald, King’s executive assistant in Atlanta.
“And she said, ‘Bob, I’m here with Coretta (King’s wife), and Coretta wants you to come back to Atlanta and go with her to pick up Martin’s body.’ And I couldn’t speak. And I told her (eventually), ‘Dora, I’m just trying to come to grips with this.’ And then I said, ‘Tell Coretta I’ll be there.’”
When Brown, Mrs. King and others arrived in Memphis, the striking garbage workers wanted to march.
“So, Mrs. King looked around at me and said, ‘Bob, what should we do?’ And I said, ‘We’re going to march. We should march. That’s what Martin would want us to do.’”
And march they did, before leaving immediately on a flight back to Atlanta with King’s body.
“Martin’s death and the way he died was profoundly a big hurt for me deep inside my body. And it’s something I still have to live with,” Brown said.
When asked how he thinks King should be remembered, Brown immediately mentioned King’s desire to be a servant. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize and having several honorary doctorate degrees, King was never boastful, Brown says.
“He had sort of a ‘saintiness’ about him,” Brown said. “And if it’s one thing I loved about him and the thing that drew me nearer to him was his humility.”