I was 10 when I met Dr. King at New York’s Riverside Church. Because my aunt was a member of Riverside's professional choir, I had a front row seat when Dr. King spoke there – newly returned from the wars of Montgomery where Rosa Parks had kept her historic seat. A battalion of everyday people rose to the occasion by taking to their feet and maintaining a 385-day boycott that would launch the modern Civil Rights era – the fight for human rights in America that persists to this day.
I was introduced to Dr. King on the receiving line. “And what are you doing for our people,” he asked. I told him my cousin and I and two others had desegregated New York City’s schools. He told me that what I was doing was “important.” He then lifted my awestruck chin and called me “pretty.”
Growing up a child of the Integration Generation, in those days when “pretty” and “important” were about as good as a Negro girl could hope to feel, you could say I was “raised” by Dr. King.
The next day as my mother brushed my hair for school, I saw a different me in the mirror.
At 8-years-old, Northern white parents had spat on me and torn my clothes for trespassing what they saw as turf and I saw as school. Now, touched by King, I felt cleansed. I was a child “raised” by Dr. King. His words liberated me. He made me feel what every person – man, woman, child – wants to feel: validated, heard, understood.
His touch, his caring, his generosity, was also a charge: a life's mission; a gift of spirit for me to share with people I meet; with audiences everywhere I go; with you.
That moment, that charge Dr. King gave a 10-year-old girl, is the gift of spirit I share with audiences in my lectures, in my books, in every experience.
"In this life," my grandmother said, "all things are one." The gifts we are given are gifts for the common good. Gifts to share. So we must walk the walk, talk the talk, live the life.
In this world, too, said my grandfather: "Let no one contaminate your mind."