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Lessons in Civil Rights
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When I told Fred Gray the next morning what had been happening at the Y, he calmly suggested it might be best to leave right away. He didn't have to tell me twice; I got on the bus.

I checked into the Atlanta YMCA and, what do you know, at midnight heard a knock on my door. Two police officers, sounding apologetic, said the FBI had called them from Montgomery and they were required to follow up. Come with us, they said, and we'll show you something interesting. Somehow I didn't feel threatened, even in the cruiser.

In the cafeteria of the main police station, they shared food and urged me to look around. Black and white officers were sitting together at nearby tables, talking and laughing. "Atlanta is a lot different from Montgomery, and we're proud of it," one of the officers said.

As I wandered the city the next morning, I saw more evidence of integration, though I did notice that many black passengers still sat in the back of the bus. I asked Dr. King about that later in the day, when we met in his office at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father was pastor.

"Change for any of us comes slowly" was his response. Words of wisdom, definitely. But as my teacher that day, Dr. King instructed less through what he said than how he said it. This champion of social justice, whose face I'd seen on the cover of Time, asked about my life and acted as if he had no commitment more important than talking to a college student who nervously clutched a yellow legal pad.

Curiosity and inclusiveness, I learned, characterized his leadership. When questioned, he acknowledged the personal cost of his role in the movement. But he rarely used the word "I"; far more common were "we" and "us."

At one point as we talked, I offhandedly referred to opponents of civil rights as "rednecks." Dr. King let the conversation continue awhile before quietly challenging me. "Dick, when we use words like redneck, that's a way of objectifying the other person or group. We cut off the possibility of conversation with them, of eventually winning them to our side."

That simple word "we" transformed his comment from criticism to a guide for my life and eventual ministry. I would encounter Dr. King several more times—before his 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, condemning the Vietnam war, and later when he became co-chair of an organization I directed.

But my enduring image of him comes from our time in his office in Atlanta, just the two of us, at the end of that long-ago spring break when so much had happened. I hear his voice prodding me gently, and I remember his lesson, which I interpreted this way: Respect the people you're arguing with—because if you're ruthless about trying to get what you want, even victory won't wind up tasting very sweet. I've tried to live by those words ever since. ~

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