Sharing a Front Seat with Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Wesleyan’s campus in the spring of 1964 and was awarded an honorary degree. Later that year, the Rev. Dick Cadigan ’59, P’86 had his own opportunity to meet Dr. King.

Dear Editors:

I cannot tell you how many times I have asked my father, the Rev. Dick Cadigan ’59, to retell this story to me, to my siblings, and to my children. It never gets old to hear about his encounter with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hon. ’64, and with each retelling, Dad often remembers new details—or maybe it’s just that I hear something I hadn’t noticed the last time.

Here’s his story:

My encounter with Martin Luther King Jr. happened in the fall of  ’64. I was chair of the Episcopal Society for Cultural & Racial Unity (ESCRU) in Missouri. I was 27 years old. We held a dinner at a big St. Louis hotel during the National Episcopal Convention. The dinner was a tribute to Freedom Fighters in the South, so we had a simple meal of soup and bread. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the speech. The place was so full that people had to eat in dining areas outside the main room. I believe the title of his talk was “Remaining Awake Through a Revolution.”

The night before, I had gone to an all-black Baptist Church and heard King give a rousing sermon, with many ”Amen!”s. For our gathering, which was 95 percent white, King gave a highly intellectualized, less Biblical, yet moving speech.

While people rose to sing “We Shall Overcome,” I was tapped on the shoulder and asked if I had a car. I said yes.

“Meet me at the hotel side door on Olive Street,” the fellow said. “There will be unmarked police cars in front and behind you. Follow their instructions.”

“Sure,” I agreed, without mentioning that my old Plymouth could only go forward. Reverse gear was broken.

King’s handlers were making these last-minute transportation arrangements because of the many threats made on his life. Hence, not having anyone know exactly how and where he was traveling equaled a safeguard.

Anyway, I went to the side entrance and got in my car. King got in the front seat next to me. He was shorter than me—I’m 5’9”—but broader in the shoulders and chest. King’s bodyguard, Bernie, got in the back.

“Did I treat Brother Goldwater okay?” King asked Bernie.

“Yes,” said Bernie.

The unmarked police cars around us were manned by plainclothes cops who had not missed any meals.

“Just follow us,” the ones in front commanded.

Sandwiched between two of their vehicles, we headed for St. Louis Airport. We drove way over the speed limit; it was rather thrilling.

Inside our car, King talked and laughed easily, but I had no clue as to how I could add to the conversation. Then I remembered he had just been to the Vatican.

“What was it like seeing the Pope?” I asked him, and he told me that he was surprised the Pope spoke English so well.

I continued our conversation by noting that I had just read a “New Yorker” interview that he’d given on the plane from Rome. Then (and I’m not sure why) I asked whether he was paid for such.

“No,” he said. “Those interviews happen all the time.”

He then mentioned that he was extremely tired; I asked about that, and he told me that he had given 17 speeches in three days in four different cities.

We sped on, keeping up with our lead escort and tailgated by the other, until we got into Lambert Field (St. Louis’s airport), where we were met with a huge traffic jam: the St. Louis Cardinals had just won the World Series (or some big playoff game) so swarms of fans were heading toward their planes.

“We’ll get out here,” King decided, so I pulled over. He and Bernie exited my car and trotted off together toward the terminal.

The next morning it was reported that King had checked into a hospital for exhaustion—and that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I felt, and still feel, a huge chuckle—a thrill!—that I was so close to such a great man and his award for history.
— The Rev. Dick Cadigan ’59, P’86

By the way, King gave several other talks during that visit to St. Louis and here is a link describing a talk he gave at Saint Louis University. 

Steve Cadigan ’86
Menlo Park, California

Cadigan and son
Dick (’59) and Steve (’86) Cadigan