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Columbia residents remember personal connections to Martin Luther King Jr.

Columbia residents share stories of Martin Luther King Jr. as a real man who touched their lives
Sunday, January 15, 2012 | 6:40 p.m. CST
Martin Luther King Jr. poses for a photograph before speaking at a rally near downtown Chicago on July 24, 1966.

COLUMBIA — As Columbia and the rest of the country take time Monday to reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., three Columbia residents shared their personal remembrances of the late civil rights leader.

George Farris

Martin Luther King Jr. liked the greens they served at his parents' table. That's one thing George Farris, 86, remembers about King.

Farris' brother, Isaac, married King's sister, Christine. The two families would visit each other in Missouri and Atlanta. Once, King came to the Farris family farm in Eolia, and his mother cooked them a homegrown meal.

"They had regular greens that they raised in the garden and Kentucky Wonder Beans and peas. They had other food like potatoes fresh out of the garden," Farris said.

They had dandelion greens, too, though they called it spinach. Farris said King really enjoyed the way his mother cooked, and King commented on the greens.

Farris said he often discussed issues of the day with King.

"He would just talk to me like a brother," he said. "We'd sit down sometimes and talk maybe half an hour or an hour. He'd bring up something and I'd bring up something and he'd say, 'Well you know why that is, don't you?'"

Then King would give the historical or economic context for a certain social issue, Farris said.

King was down-to-earth, Farris said. "He didn't act like he was any different than me."

Farris respected King as a leader.

"He just wanted everybody to have a chance to give their expression," Farris said. "Just because a person is a different color or different religion doesn't mean you can mistreat them and think you're right, because that's not the way the Lord looks at it."

John Zielinski

It was pure chance that John Zielinski came face-to-face with King that sweltering day in Chicago.

Zielinski is a professional photographer now living in Columbia. But on July 24, 1966, he was a college student with a summer job in Chicago who took his girlfriend's 35mm Praktica camera to a shop downtown to find new lenses.

A police officer approached him on the street while he was taking pictures, Zielinski said, and warned him that King would be speaking later and there could be a riot, so he should stay away.

Instead, Zielinski said he went straight to the site of the rally.

The temperature was in the 90s. King, who looked exhausted, pulled up in a large truck with several other speakers, Zielinski said.

"I was impressed that as hot as it was, he was there in a black suit," he said.

Just as a crowd of about 125 pressed toward the stage, a man moved his hands and parted the crowd like Moses.

"He split those people in two to let me take those photos," Zielinski said.

Zielinski never thought he would get to see King except on TV. He stepped to the edge of the platform, about four to six feet away from King, and snapped a photo head-on.

"I had been there at an important moment in history," he said.

When people look at the photos these days, Zielinski said, he hopes they come away with "a warm remembrance of the man."

Betsy Phillips

In March 1965, King called on Americans to join the demonstration from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala.

That's just what Betsy Phillips did.

She was 29 or 30, she said, and flew from southern California on a chartered plane with other demonstrators.

"The idea was to march to the state capital and get the governor (George Wallace) to come out and speak to us," Phillips said.

The group started marching.

"We were told to line up, and there were six or seven abreast," she said. "There were soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets about every 10 or 15 feet along the side of the street, and we marched down the middle."

They sang "We Shall Overcome." Phillips said it was the first time she heard the song.

"I felt that we were all there to do a job, and, in that sense, every single person counted," she said.

In the distance she saw King address the crowd of 25,000 and encourage them to keep at it.

"I thought, 'That really is him!'" Phillips said. "You felt that the country has come to a decision, and they really feel that things have to change. There has to be change. There has to be equality."

Phillips said she admires King as a great American hero.

"People, regardless of what color or ethnicity, can look up to someone like that and be happy that he lived," she said. "He spoke to us all, and he spoke to us all in words that we could understand."


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