Next Wednesday, Jan. 15, is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. He would have been 85. In 1960, Dr. King visited Santa Monica, albeit very briefly. How do I know? Because my late mother, Thelma Neworth, was his host and driver and, as I will explain later, I have a feeling she might have been talking his ear off.
Thelma was certainly not a typical housewife of the 1950s. While a mother of two, her life was filled with executive board meetings, primarily Democratic Party politics and at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles.
Actually, it was through Temple that she met, and introduced to our congregation, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy, Margaret Mead, Rod Serling, Daniel Schorr and, of course, the then 31-year-old King, a reverend.
My mother was a driving force behind the Temple Isaiah Forum Series wherein the temple invited luminaries from the world of social action, (and paying them $1,000) to come speak to the congregation. The first famous name of these was Dr. King in February, 1960. I was 15 and it was a big deal to me, although to my mother perhaps it was just another day at the office.
She picked up Dr. King at LAX, then a very small airport, in her tiny four-door 1958 Hillman Minx, then a very small and underpowered car. The Minx had an automatic transmission and only 70 horsepower. It felt like a sewing machine on wheels.
I have to laugh now as I recall all those years ago when my father let me borrow the Hillman, but only after a stern warning, “Don’t go drag racing with your friends.” Drag racing? The Minx could barely get up a hill.
Less than five years earlier, at age 26, Dr. King had helped lead the Montgomery, Ala. Bus Boycott. This followed Dec. 1, 1955, when, on a public bus in Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white person and go to the back of the bus.
The successful boycott was such a powerful moment in U.S. history that many compared King to Gandhi. So you could say my mom was picking up the American Gandhi at LAX.
I remember asking mom what Dr. King was like. Though he was only 31, she said of him, “It was like being in the presence of a prophet.” It wasn’t Mickey Mantle mind you, but I was still very impressed.
A few years before her death, my mother gave me the audio tape of Dr. King’s address from that night. The quality had deteriorated badly over 30 years, but she did share a few more details about that remarkable late afternoon.
Coming from LAX, my mother took Sepulveda Boulevard north to go to Temple where the rabbi and the Temple Board had a dinner set up to be followed by Dr. King’s speech to the congregation, which my mother would introduce. (With no notes, I might add, but that was Thelma.)
But at Pico and Sepulveda, I have a feeling my mother must have been deeply engrossed in conversation. I can somehow picture her saying to Dr. King, “I’m not telling you how to run the civil rights movement, but I do have some suggestions.” I say this only because instead of turning right at Pico and heading toward West Los Angeles, my mother inadvertently turned left. Yikes!
So it was that on Pico at around 14th Street, when the Minx headed down the hill, that my mother confessed that Dr. King became somewhat alarmed. Starring in the distance he exclaimed, “Mrs. Neworth,” he said, “Isn’t that the Pacific Ocean?” (I jokingly refer to this as his “Balboa moment.”)
Unflustered, my mother responded casually, “Why so it is.” As she told me this story, I was so embarrassed for her. “Mom, oh my God, what did you do?” “What could I do?” she said matter-of-factly, “I made a U-turn.”
I can picture the rabbi and the Temple board pacing nervously, “Where is Dr. King?” The place was not only sold out, but an overflow crowd sat patiently in classrooms below where the address would be broadcast over loud speakers.
Amazingly, I recently found MLK’s Temple Isaiah speech on the Internet! And it’s been beautifully restored. It’s amazing. I can clearly hear my mother introducing Dr. King and his gracious, “Thank you, Mrs. Neworth.”
Apparently without notes, Dr. King spoke for 45 minutes and his style is mesmerizing. There was a surprise at the end, however.
Dr. King concluded his talk at Temple with, “In the words of the old Negro spiritual, free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.” Only I might think of this, but to make it more relatable to his audience at Temple, Dr. King might have changed “free” to “wholesale.”
To hear Dr. King’s speech (and Thelma’s introduction) go to templeisaiah.com/rsblog/mlk. Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.