By Maria Saporta
Not long after Martin Luther King Jr. died, I heard a recording of his “I Have A Dream” speech.
And it dawned on me that one of his dreams had come true in his lifetime thanks to my friendship with his daughter, Yolanda. He was able to see a black girl and a white girl join hands as sisters and as friends without the weight of prejudice and hate.
As I’ve grown older, I also have come to realize King had an extraordinary ability to speak to each one of us as individuals — to find those common threads of humanity that bind us together.
The passage of the “I Have A Dream” speech that spoke to me was:
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I had the good fortune to be born to two enlightened and compassionate parents, Spanish Jews from Greece who had experienced the horrors of World War II in Europe.
When they moved to Atlanta in 1948, they naturally sympathized with the plight of blacks and became active in civil rights.
As a family, we would participate in picket lines — my parents, my sister and me. I also remember Mama making a point to have us sit in the back of buses as our own private protest.
It was September 1966 when the children of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. and the children of Juanita and Ralph David Abernathy began attending Spring Street Elementary School, where we went to school.
One day in the girl’s bathroom, I saw that a girl my age was crying. Someone had made a nasty comment to her. I tried to give her comfort, and that’s how Yolanda King – then called “Yoki” — and I became close friends, even best friends for a precious time in my life.
She would spend the night at my house — a 7th floor apartment on North Avenue across from Georgia Tech; and I would spend the night at her home on Sunset Avenue in Vine City. Tom Houck, a driver for King and the family, often would ferry us back-and-forth.
The first night I stayed at her place, her father was out of town. The next time I stayed over, a Saturday night, King was there. We all had dinner, and then we all helped clear the dishes from the table.
King then started washing the dishes, and I sat on the counter drying them as he asked me questions and spoke to me as his peer even though I was only 11. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember being aware that I was in the presence of a truly great man who was singularly focused on wanting to know more about me.
While I did not give it much thought at the time, I likely was the first white friend that one of his children had ever brought to his home.
Yoki and I were in the guest room down the hall from Coretta and Martin’s room. We could hear Martin reciting the next day’s sermon to Coretta, and I remember her saying: “No Martin, I would say…” That showed me what a true partnership they shared.
The next morning we went to Ebenezer Baptist Church to hear the edited sermon. Because we had stayed up late, Yoki kept dozing off, but I was mesmerized on his every word.
Over the next year, I was able to go to church with the King family on other Sundays. We also had a few occasions when our families would get together — Yoki’s parents and my parents really hit it off. And Yoki and I shared lots of good times, enjoying our birthdays, walking in marches, and simply talking about all that was happening around us.
So it was for both personal and professional reasons why I felt I needed to be in Washington on Aug. 28 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech. (I must admit I needed some prodding by my dear friend, Roger, who told me I couldn’t miss it).
The highlight for me was being able to say hello to the three living King children after the speeches and to take their picture as they stood together.
The night before anniversary, during a panel discussion at the National Press Club, longtime civil rights leader Julian Bond captured my view of King’s quiet yet tremendous power.
“His genius was that he was able to talk to black and white Southerners,” Bond said of MLK. “He had the ability to talk to disparate groups of people with the ability to understand. He made it so clear and so plain.”
I call it the “Mona Lisa effect.” If you look at the Mona Lisa from any angle, her eyes look as though she’s looking just at you.
It was that way with Martin Luther King Jr. If you listen to his words and hear his messages, it’s as though he is speaking directly to you.
That’s why King’s power and his words have transcended decades — seemingly growing only more powerful and relevant with each passing day.