It had rained the morning of the June day in 1958, almost 55 years ago, that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then only 29 years old, had dinner with the Moores of north Omaha. The rest of the day was muggy. King spent two ordinary days in this typical Midwestern community, but even then he was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary message.
Before his visit was over, King brought his message of civil rights to an estimated 18,000 eager listeners at the Civic Auditorium. He inspired them with his prediction that segregation would end by 2000. And he ate a meal that made a family memory that has lasted down through the years.
That year, 1958, was fairly early in King’s public career. Rosa Parks had refused to move to the back of a bus in December 1955. The famous Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott quickly followed.
King, a preacher at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in that city, was asked to head the Montgomery Improvement Association, which guided the boycott, and he became the focal point for racists opposing equal rights for black Americans and civil rights in general. His home was bombed in 1956, and the issue — and King — became national news.
Ned and Bertha Moore owned a home at 2011 Ohio St. that was a showpiece of their neighborhood, although it has since been torn down. Ned Moore had a landscaping business and his yard was his pride.
And it was with pride that he picked up King and his longtime aide, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, from the old Rome Hotel downtown to take them to his home the day after King’s speech.
The civil rights giant visited the story-and-a-half Moore home, then 113 years old, for a meal of greens, corn bread, fried chicken and potatoes, recalled Patricia Brown, a granddaughter who was 21 at the time. She said he seemed to enjoy her 1-year-old daughter, carrying the child into the backyard to see Ned Moore’s prized pink roses.
Family members remembered that, for whatever reason, the civil rights leader seemed quiet and pensive.
“He was delightful,” Brown reminisced later. “The tone of his voice, his smile. Listening to him talk about different things, he seemed like he had a vision.” And he did. That was proved during the 10 years between that quiet Omaha meal and his violent death by gunfire on April 4, 1968.
When the news of his assassination came, she said, her grandfather put his head down and wept. So did many others, black and white together.
Today, Omaha and the nation mark the Martin Luther King holiday, and one of the Bibles being used by the first black president to take his second-term oath of office belonged to the Rev. King. It’s a good day to contemplate King’s moral vision, his unquestioned courage and his deep and abiding commitment to justice and equality under the law, achieved by the difficult means of nonviolence.
If Martin Luther King Jr. were able to return to Omaha to have another quiet meal with a typical Omaha family, what might his insights be into the America of today?
“Today, he would be both emboldened and disappointed by the status of his struggle,” we wrote in a 2008 editorial.
“He would see that even in the 21st century, racial hatred still roams across America. Though manifested more quietly than before, racial prejudice still leads to injustices in everyday life for too many Americans. And he would see that, as in his own era, racial obsessions, by people of all backgrounds, continue to spur animosity and misunderstandings where goodwill should prevail. ...
“He would see the educational achievement gap between white students and students of color in America’s public schools and wonder why more lawmakers and citizens don’t feel spurred to promote positive change,” we continued. “He would look at the declining state of family affairs in impoverished households and mourn the losses of role models and hope.”
But King had his faith — and faith in his fellow Americans, black and white; faith in the perfectibility of human character; faith in hope. Faith in change.
As we remember this man of sweeping vision and profound humanity, let us all strive to keep the faith.