|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2012|
By Ronald Talney
It was the mid '60s. I was attending night law school in Portland, the old Northwestern College of Law, later the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College. The law school was pur-chased by Lewis & Clark in 1966, my final year. Martin Luther King Jr. was already a national figure and a highly sought-after speaker. I do not recall who sponsored his appearance in Portland, but it was likely the Urban League, or the local chapter of the NAACP. He was scheduled to speak at the Civic Auditorium (now known as the Keller) and it was a school night. While I was not to anticipate the events that would eventually unfold, ending with his tragic assassination in Memphis in 1968, he had already achieved an iconic reputation as a champion of the nonviolent movement toward justice and racial equality in America. I had seen him on television many times and had listened to his oratory.
Consequently, I decided I had to hear him in person, even if it meant skipping class for an evening, something I did not take lightly. Perhaps the fact that the class I would miss was on the UCC was factored in, but, in any event, I have never regretted that decision. I arrived at the auditorium early to get a good seat. I was directed to the first balcony on the north side and took a seat where I would have a good view of the stage and the speaker. The event was clearly a sell-out and seats were filling quickly. The vast majority of those in attendance were African American, most dressed in their Sunday best. It was the first time in my life that I, as a young white man, had felt myself to be clearly in the minority. It was not an uncomfortable feeling, but something I had not experienced before. I had had close black friends in high school, and had two black supervisors at my day job for the state of Oregon, but I had never before been in a crowd such as this where I was one of the few non-African Americans.
In due course King was introduced and the crowd gave him a rousing welcome. He immediately established his rapport with the audience, telling some stories, demonstrating some familiarity with Portland, even if he didn't actually have much familiarity with the city, and thanking his sponsors for the opportunity to speak. And then, little by little, he began to work the audience, his Southern ministerial background coming to the fore, his deep voice rising and falling. And the audience began to respond, something I had never been part of before either, until a great antiphony developed between them and King, the largely black audience and the powerful speaker.
I must confess, I remember little of what was actually said that night. What I recall is the vocal rhythm of the moment, King's magnificent voice and the audience responding, "Oh Yes," "Amen, Brother," back and forth, like a great organ recital, the energy lifting to the heights of the ceiling and then descending back to earth. I sat there mesmerized for whatever time it lasted. It could have been an hour; it could have been two hours. But then it was over and he disappeared behind the curtain and was gone. The audience sat stunned by the experience, then thunderous applause. Then the crowd gradually began to disperse.
I returned to my car and drove home. It had been a long day, working and then going to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., but I was deep in thought. It was as if God himself had spoken. Thereafter I followed his career closely to the very end, as well as the civil rights movement in general. John Kennedy had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy would follow, as well as King himself. The futile and unexplainable Vietnam War was at its apex, along with the protests and demonstrations of antiwar activists. Young men of draft age were fleeing to Canada. The civil rights movement was at its height, mostly in the Deep South, but not entirely. The feminist movement was in its early formative years. It was the "radical" '60s and a turbulent time. An exciting time to be a young law student in America. The cornerstones for the future of America were being laid, and not to everyone's satisfaction. Today we are seeing some of the fruits of that turbulence.
Responding to President Kennedy's call for us to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country, I was also energized by the appearance of Martin Luther King Jr. and have never forgotten that I had the privilege of seeing and hearing him in person. I have no doubt it influenced future decisions as to the kind of law I wanted to practice and the types of causes and clients I wanted to represent. After all these years I have never regretted those decisions.
And I still hear that voice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ronald Talney, a retired public interest lawyer who lives in Lake Oswego, is the author of the recently released satiric novel, Nockers Up!, from Inkwater Press, and a memoir, The Archives of Silence, from West Virginia University.
© 2012 Ronald Talney