By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Many know that the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. entered Morehouse at the age of 15, graduated in 1948 and at age 35 received the Nobel Peace Prize; but few can envision King rolling in the grass and fighting with an Army veteran over a 10 cents haircut.
Army veteran Walter McCall, a fellow student cut hair in the basement of Morehouse’s Graves Hall to earn money. But after he finished cutting King’s hair, King refused to pay him a dime for the haircut. Instead, King promised to pay him later.
McCall, a 21-year-old Army veteran told King, “You and I both know you have a dime,” he said, in Patrick Parr’s 2018 book The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.
King said, “Man. I haven’t got it now. So there’s nothing you can do about it, unless you want to go to the grass.”
McCall tackled 15-year-old King, wrestled him to the floor and the fight soon spilled out onto the lawn. Many bystanders expected the older soldier to easily beat King who was smaller, less experienced, and seldom fought back .This time, King fought back, and he earned the vet’s respect.
The pair became close friends. The point is a fight over a 10 cents haircut shows that King enjoyed being around people.
That was long before he linked arms and led the successful 381-day Montgomery bus boycott from 1955-1956, spearheaded the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, and helped launch the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
This means King was a people person. He instinctively knew how to work with people long before he led the 1965 five day, 50-mile Selma to Montgomery march to the state capital of Montgomery. People marched eight abreast. Six hundred people marched in the first protest called Bloody Sunday.
King’s charisma helped him organize another march, but protesters did not succeed in getting to Montgomery until March 25. The speech he delivered that day, on the steps of the state capitol, has since become known as “How Long, Not Long.”
King’s people skills helped him organize a march in Chicago on Aug. 5, 1966. He led about 700 people on a march in Marquette Park on Chicago’s Southwest Side, a white neighborhood, to protest housing segregation. Whites stood on the sidelines taunting the demonstrators. At one point, a brick hit King in the head, but he continued the march as onlookers hurled rocks, bottles, and firecrackers at the marchers. Thirty people, including King, were injured.
Of the Chicago protest, King later said, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and hateful as I’ve seen here today.” He continued, “I have to do this – to expose myself – to bring this hate into the open.”
Clearly King’s superb people skills helped him organize many demonstrations including one in Albany, Ga. in November 1961 to protest city segregation policies. His largest march was The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It drew between 200,000 and 300,000 on Aug. 28, 1963. Some 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and more than 3,000 members of the press covered the event.
But did his carefully honed people skills develop at Morehouse after he and the veteran fought over a 10 cents haircut yet became close friends? “We played pool until sometimes three o’clock in the morning,” Walter “Mac” said, in Parr’s book.
Although King was cautious, reserved, and lived comfortably at home as the son of a successful minister and McCall was bolder, louder, and always struggling to make ends meet, the two briefly worked together washing dishes in the Old Main kitchen, played pool together, and even organized secret parties at King’s home while Daddy and Mama King were out.
“One night I remember so well – boy, we had a good time,” McCall said. “The old man [Daddy King] … stood at the door to listen to the music and he peeped through the keyhole and we didn’t know it. All of a sudden he burst into the house and there we were just swinging away into the night.”
While their budding friendship brings King’s fun-loving character and embryonic organizational skills sharply into focus, two summer jobs show King was always an independent thinker.
For example, one summer King went to Connecticut to work cutting tobacco. What impressed him most; he told his father when he returned home to Atlanta to go to school in the fall was how different life was in the North.
“Daddy King could tell that his son had seen … a freer society and would never again be able to look at segregation. . .without burning with a determination to destroy that system forever,” Parr noted in his book.
“The North wasn’t entirely without racial discord, of course but there was some relief from the presence of laws intended to turn people into things that were less than human,” Parr continued. “(King said) it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. It was hard to understand why I could ride whenever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington, and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation’s capital in order to continue to Atlanta.”
Perhaps the bitterest experience came, King said, when the waiter moved him to a different seat in the rear of the train and jerked down a dividing curtain. “I felt as though that curtain had dropped on my selfhood,” King said.
However, he returned to Morehouse, renewed his friendships including the one he prized with Walter “Mac” and hung out around the Yates and Milton drugstore on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Butler Street. He and his friends spent the summer of 1945 chasing females. They called themselves “the wreckers” for their ability to break a woman’s heart.