Eating Dr. King’s Dinner: Conclusion
V - Conclusion
So there it was, finally.
As I say, these were not his exact words, but the cadence and content are all there. In any case, when the trusty heard the word “fast,” his mouth dropped open. Mine did, too.
The trusty frowned more deeply, and turned his head slightly, as if he was working up to ask a question, perhaps something like, “Say what?” Dr. King headed him off.
“And that, my friend, is why I very much appreciate the effort you’ve gone to,” he said, “but I’m afraid I am unable to eat your greens.”
“You mean – ?” croaked the trusty. Much of the rest of the disquisition may have gone over his head, but this last was sinking in.
Dr. King nodded.
The trusty looked genuinely confused.”You mean,’ he repeated, “you can’t – ?”
Now Dr. King shook his head slowly.
The trusty looked at Abernathy, who had moved to Dr. King’s elbow. He smiled apologetically, but shook his head also.
The trusty blinked and turned toward the other staffer, who had hung back silently through this whole exchange. His head shook too.
The trusty stood there for a moment, without a clue as to what to do next.
And then, he looked at me.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, I have always thought the key to the story is in verse 33 of Luke’s Gospel’s tenth chapter, where it says of the Samaritan who found the robbery victim, wounded and abandoned, that “his heart was moved with compassion.”
I think I can say, with some humility, that when I saw the sense of loss and confusion on the trusty’s face, my heart, like that of the Samaritan, was moved with compassion. (Or if not the heart, then an organ just under it.)
After all, it was easy to imagine what kind of life this man had, standing by the squeaky cart in the worn white uniform of a kitchen helper. We had heard similar laments from the county prisoners upstairs. I guessed he was probably a habitual drunk, petty thief, or some combination of the two.
He probably had no job, like so many other black men around Selma, or couldn’t keep one; perhaps he was among the many farm laborers who had been pushed out of the cotton fields by mechanization. Not dangerous, probably, except to himself or when drunk; otherwise, why would the police have let him work in the kitchen, where there must be knives and other potential weapons?
This was his bleak present, and probably his dreary future: helping prepare the Spartan prison fare for men, and perhaps a few women, slightly more wretched than himself, all wasting their lives in the obscure cells of a provincial city jail.
And then, like a breath of the divine, this day brought an astounding break in this routine: a flood of respectable citizens into the cellblocks; our thundering, rhythmic chorus of defiance and spirit which must have reverberated through these halls as well as our crowded warren upstairs. Even more amazing, from out of this inchoately marvelous mass, emerged the modern Moses, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., freshly back from Oslo and the Nobel Peace Prize, right into the hallways of his own tiny, godforsaken wasteland.
Why wouldn’t he want to seize this moment of light, this trembling interval of grace, and do something, do his best, for this apparition? I had heard about the anguished letters Dr. King received from black people across the country, people who thought he could work wonders, cure their diseases, or those of their suffering children, just by the laying on of his hands.
The trusty, though, had made no request, had asked for nothing. Rather, he had exercised his meager skill, and probably coaxed and begged his white keepers for leave, this once, this only once, to do for Moses the little he could do, bring to him a token of gratitude and honor, a sign of the exaltation that Dr. King, though all-too-human, had had laid on him for the benefit of us all, and especially for the least of them, of whom this trusty was a fitting embodiment.
He had made Dr. King a plate of greens. And now Dr. King had gently, but firmly, refused it.
What were homilies about someone named Gandhi compared to this?
How could I not be moved by this spectacle?
How could I not, in the face of it, make my own gesture, my own sacrifice?
“Um,” I said, “you know, I’m really kind of new to this nonviolence business, and I never heard all this stuff about Gandhi before. So I – well, I haven’t made any vows about fasting or praying or, um, anything like that.”
The trusty blinked and listened to me bungle my sentences.
“So,” I stumbled on, “what I mean is – I’d hate to see you go back to the kitchen , um, [not] empty-handed, as it were.”
I was losing him. “What I really mean is,” I said, trying to get the lead out, “I mean, if it’s all right with you, and Dr. King, well – I-I guess I’d be willing, um, willing to eat your greens.”
The trusty blinked at me again. His gaze shifted questioningly to Dr. King. I followed, half afraid to look. But we both saw Dr. King give a slight nod and shrug, as if to affirm the innocence of my ignorance.
The trusty then looked at Abernathy, who nodded as well; the other civil rights worker followed.
Thus confirmed in the awareness that I was his fourth choice, I watched him slowly pick up the plate. He balanced it carefully, so as not to spill the collards’ copious pot liquor, deftly opened the narrow slot in the door with the other hand, and slid it through. The plate was still warm in my hands. He passed me a plastic fork and knife.
I half-turned away from the others, all too conscious of their eyes on me. I was almost ready to cry out: oh god, forgive me! But the greens looked so good, the smell was intoxicating, irresistible.
I jabbed the fork into the heaped greens. But the tines sank only half an inch before sticking in something firmer, almost solid.
What the –? Suspicion welled up. Could there be something sinister hidden in the chlorophyll? I scraped the greens to one side.
And there, beneath the facade of dull green, was not some toxin, nor another vegetable. Instead I found meat. Thick pink slices of fine country ham, a food of shameless luxury.
My mind raced as I cut and wolfed the chunks. This could not possibly be the everyday menu in this establishment; what cunning had he exercised to get them? The concealing arrangement of greens, which had seemed so random, suddenly took on an aspect almost of art.
What a dinner I had that night. It has nourished me ever since.
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Adapted from: Eating Dr. King’s Dinner, A Memoir of the Movement, 1963-1966. Copyright (c) Kimo Press, 2005.