Sean Kirst: An image, a Bible, a Buffalo moment with MLK - The Buffalo News

Share this article

print logo

Sean Kirst: An image, a Bible, a Buffalo moment with MLK

The Bible is at the feet of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who leans from the stage at Kleinhans Music Hall to clasp the hands of men and women in the crowd before him. They surge forward, beaming, at the front of a line that stretches beyond range of the camera.

The date is Nov. 9, 1967. The image, in a file at the Buffalo History Museum, was captured by Robert L. Smith, longtime photographer of The Buffalo Evening News. An older woman, near the stage, has one hand on the Bible. King seems to be reaching toward it, almost certainly to sign it.

It has been 50 years to the month since that photo was taken. Even elders in the community have trouble identifying all the faces.

Yet in the ones they remember, they find a statement on the era. That instant captured King's interaction, not quite five months before his death, with everyday men and women from greater Buffalo.

There is a minister, an old friend of King's, whose passion was changing lives on the East Side.

There is a young man, born into Jim Crow segregation, who would honor the ethic of his parents by becoming a physician.

And there is the older woman a smiling King seems ready to address, with a Bible that at least for now is lost to history.

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 visit to Buffalo

King was here to speak in the wake of the riots of 1967, when fury erupted in impoverished Buffalo neighborhoods, as it did in dozens of cities across the nation.

He was always an advocate of nonviolence. He told his audience he would not "yield to the politics of despair." Still, in his speech that night, at a moment of both national and local urgency, King wondered about the priorities of financing a costly war in Vietnam despite the suffering in American cities.

After the triumphs of the civil rights movement, he spoke of the harder challenge of changing minds, of improving schools, of achieving true equality.

"Disappointment breeds despair," he told his audience. "Despair leads to bitterness, and where there is bitterness an explosion will develop."

A few months later he died, at 39, at the hands of an assassin in Memphis.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. attends a news conference in Kleinhans Music Hall on Nov. 9, 1967. (Robert L. Smith/The Buffalo News, courtesy of Buffalo History Museum)

Over coffee, I shared the image with George Arthur, 83, the former Common Council president who's witnessed decades of transformation and struggle. Arthur is a photographer himself, one of the first African-Americans to ever graduate with that major from Seneca Vocational High School. He was at Kleinhans for the speech and was among a small contingent of community leaders who met privately with King.

The talk that night was organized by the University at Buffalo's Graduate Student Association. Arthur remembers wishing more people from the African-American community were there.

On 50th anniversary of King's speech, a community reflects on race

It was a hard time, he said. King's decision to question the war had made him a target of elevated political and governmental fury. Arthur believes some men and women stayed away out of fear.

Still, the photo captures a spontaneous instant of communion. After 50 years, Arthur wasn't sure of the identity of the woman with the Bible, but he knew the face of a man who stood directly in front of King: the Rev. Willard Williams, pastor at that time of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, a pastor deeply involved in efforts to change conditions in suffering areas in the city.

Old clippings in newspaper files describe how Williams and King became friends when they both studied at Boston University. Williams, who went on to serve as district superintendent for his church in Western New York, kept a photo on his office wall that showed him shaking hands with King during the historic 1965 march from Selma, Ala.

Williams died in Massachusetts in 2004, but his presence in the image may offer a clue to the woman with the Bible.

I emailed the photograph to the Rev. Walter Barton, now in Connecticut, who also served as a pastor at Lincoln. While Barton said he can't be absolutely sure, he believes the woman could be a Lincoln parishioner he once knew: Sylvia Campbell.

One of Campbell's relatives was willing to help but didn't want her name in the paper. The image is a half-century old, and the relative wasn't completely positive. But yes, she said, that might well be Sylvia, who lived into her 80s, who loved to bake, who traveled the world – and who, as a witness to the days of legal segregation, was a fierce advocate for justice and civil rights.

Sylvia was indomitable, the relative said. She was the kind of person who would have fearlessly gone straight to the stage.

One more call, then, this one to Lum Smith, retired Buffalo schools administrator and a historian with deep knowledge of the city's African-American community. He studied the photo, and one face in particular registered in his memory, a beaming young man just behind the woman with the Bible.

Smith asked for a little time to show the image to some friends. That night, he called with an absolute ID.

The young man was Dr. Franklin Garmon, who died 10 years ago and whose brother Gentre, 77, is a local minister and a retired Erie County social worker.

Franklin's story, certainly, intertwines with King's lifetime ideals.

Gentre said he and Franklin shared a bedroom throughout childhood. They arrived in Buffalo, as little children, with their family. They'd left Memphis when their father, skilled at arc welding, decided to travel north in search of better  work.

Their parents, Charles and Oba Garmon, picked cotton when they were young, Gentre said. That hard toil never shattered their aspirations. They both loved to read, and the emphasis in their home was always on education.

Gentre spoke with passion of countless childhood nights at their kitchen table, how the Pittsburgh Courier and many great black newspapers of the time were available throughout the house, how every dinner became a free-ranging discussion about the times and the world.

Their parents insisted that all five children knew the capitals of all 50 states. They were urged to read the U.S. Constitution. They grew up believing knowledge could transcend the cruelest barriers.

"We were taught," Gentre said, "to have wide horizons."

They did as their parents did. They learned and they worked.

George Arthur: Fifty years later, living witness to King visit. (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

Gentre remembers how he and Franklin spent summers picking beans on a farm to earn a few extra dollars. He remembers how his brother studied at Erie Community College, then became a phlebotomist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute – and still felt he could do more.

Franklin enrolled at the University at Buffalo. He went on to medical school at Howard University. The guy who once picked beans became an orthopedic surgeon.

As a young man, Franklin learned to rip an engine apart, and he was the rare doctor who knew how to repair his own car. He used to surprise his colleagues, Gentre said, by offering to help if, say, their brakes went bad or a transmission needed fixing.

When Franklin had a 60th birthday celebration in Washington, D.C., patients showed up to tell his family about their gratitude.

Gentre, hearing those tales, recalled the kitchen table.

They were born in the South, at a time when the law itself did not recognize their full humanity. So yes, Gentre said, it made sense that his brother was at Kleinhans 50 years ago this week, in line to meet King, just behind the woman who gently pushed the Bible across the stage.

Maybe, on a shelf somewhere in Buffalo, that Bible still exists. Maybe it carries some message of inspiration, putting words to whatever Franklin Garmon felt that night, emotion made clear by his joy in the photograph.

Franklin was close enough to watch King as he reached for the book, a young man whose vision of a career in medicine was a statement on transcending the harsh barriers of the times.

"We were compelled," said Gentre, describing a sense of purpose his siblings took directly from their parents.

In a sense, he said, they'd all grown up waiting for King.

A Closer Look: John Wilson's Martin Luther King sculpture

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News who would love to hear stories from anyone who recognizes faces in the photo. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com, leave a comment below or read more of his work in this archive.

Story topics: /

There are no comments - be the first to comment