If you had the blessing of knowing your grandparents, you know that their best gift to you was two-fold: love and stories. I am blessed to still have one set of grandparents alive. I know of their deep love for my brother and I. And they certainly told me many stories. I had the chance to visit with my grandparents about a year ago when this photo was taken. My grandfather has lost some of his mental capacity due to some brain incidents, but I was able to share a couple special moments with him that I’ll never forget. I got to tell him how much I love him and how proud I am to be his grandson. And he told me he loves me and he’s proud of the man I’ve become. One of the stories I remember him telling me years ago vividly involved the day my grandfather, Ed Finlay, met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Several years ago, I emailed my grandparents in advance of Dr. King’s birthday, a national holiday when we honor all this great man did and stood for. I asked my grandparents to write down this story. Selfishly, I wanted a record of this story. But I also wanted to have it for my blog readers and to tell the story to my children when they got older. So, I’m going to turn this post over to Ed Finlay. This is his story.
The Day My Grandfather Met Dr. King
Hello, my name is Ed Finlay and this is my story.
I had been invited to New York City by Columbia University, in order to deliver a paper on how to do long-range college and university planning, my area of expertise. I arrived in New York on a Sunday evening in order to be available for the Monday morning session. It was Mother’s Day and a wet and miserable night.
There was something going on, a backup of some sort in the street, and the cab couldn’t get me to the hotel entrance. He let me off instead at the corner. So, I was lugging a suitcase in one hand and a case of carousel slides in the other as I approached the New York Hilton. As I walked under the covered driveway, I noticed there was no doorman in attendance, although there was a cluster of five or six men talking by the door.
I was getting ready to free up my right hand by putting down a bag when the gentleman closest to the door reached out and pulled it open while still focused on the group he was with. As I went past him and verbally expressed thanks, he nodded and glanced towards me. I recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. immediately.
I had somewhat followed his career and had been especially touched by his “Letters from the Birmingham Jail”. Now I found myself touched by his simple act of courtesy, seemingly instinctive.
There were no cameras around; the others in the group didn’t even seem to notice the help he’d provided. But he had really helped me out.
Later, after checking in (a long process on a busy night) and getting a bite to eat, I punched the “up” button on a bank of eight or more elevators. I got on, punched in my floor number and off we went. But only to the Mezzanine level. The door opened and in walked Dr. King and his bodyguard. I said, “Hello again” and he laughed and replied, “Are you stalking me?”
“Hardly!” I replied, “I got on the elevator first, remember.” We exchanged a few pleasantries – he was in New York to raise money and I, to deliver a paper. We said “Goodnight. Good luck.” And that was that – or so I thought.
On Tuesday morning, I boarded a Delta Air Lines flight back to Houston by way of Atlanta. And yes, it happened again.
Right before the flight was to take off, Dr. King and his bodyguard boarded the flight and sat down almost directly across the aisle from me.
Imagine the odds of that happening. He laughed that his bodyguard would have preferred him in the middle seat but he liked the aisle as did I. Again we chatted a bit – he had raised a good amount of money; my talk had gone well – and then we each picked up something to read. I said goodbye to him when he got off in Atlanta and never saw him again. A few years later he was assassinated.
I can’t say I like everything I knew or later learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., but I will always remember that rainy night when he did what seemed to be “second nature” to him and opened the door of a big NYC hotel to help out a fellow human being whose hands were full.
Reflections on Dr. King and His Encounter with My Grandfather
Many of us remember Dr. King most vividly for his brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail. In that letter, Dr. King wrote,
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
[bluebox] If you haven’t ever read King’s Letter to a Birmingham Jail, I strongly recommend it. He wrote the letter without notes or books, which makes the piece even more incredible when considering the long quotes he recites from memory. [/bluebox] Few speeches in American history eclipse Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech, he said,
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. (My Lord) Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
While these words are well-known and stick in one’s memory, my grandfather’s strongest memory of Dr. King was when “I found myself touched by his simple act of courtesy, seemingly instinctive.” I believe integrity and character are not defined by who you are on a big stage, under bright lights, with everyone watching. True integrity and character are revealed in who you are and what you do backstage when you think no one is watching and no camera is recording. Who you are is what you do by instinct, in your most normal and natural acts. From my grandfather’s experience, it appears courtesy, grace, and generosity were the essence of the man whose birthday we celebrate today (January 15). However you’re spending this holiday, I’m praying God will bless you today with an opportunity to extend a simple act of courtesy to another person. May we recognize our opportunity to serve those we meet today in Jesus’ name as Dr. King did. May we experience his famous words, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.” I believe he lived those words the night he opened a door for my grandfather in New York City. It’s an act I’ll never forget.