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Martin Luther King Jr.’s 67th Birthday: This Civil Rights Hero Finally Became a Major Player

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The Zealot and the Emancipator

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Harlem to address King Street Baptist Church on March 20, 1967, it was a chilly night, but not a wet one. Thaddeus Holliday, a 43-year-old gardener, was waiting to greet him. Mr. Holliday knew nothing about King; he had never seen a movie. There was something about King, though, that lifted Mr. Holliday’s spirits. From that moment, the passion and the fervor he felt for Dr. King would define him in the years to come.

The program that day was packed with supporters of Dr. King. He spoke for about an hour, thanked them all and took their donations to King Street Baptist Church. A man sat off to the side with his 6-year-old son. After King finished speaking, he reached over and got Mr. Holliday’s attention. Mr. Holliday remembers thinking that this was the man — the future champion of the civil rights movement — that he and his friends in the balcony watched marching on Harlem’s Radical Baptist Church on February 15, 1962. When Mr. Holliday had finished listening to Dr. King, he went to his chair. “Don’t worry,” Dr. King called over to him. “I don’t need you.”

There was nothing Mr. Holliday could say to Dr. King. For the young man, that was the moment he had waited for. He knew what he could offer Dr. King, and it was not words. It was action. He stood up and walked across the floor, even though King had asked him not to. Once he got to the front of the auditorium, he held his hand out to Dr. King and extended it. Mr. Holliday knew in his heart that even though it seemed like a gesture of sympathy, it would truly mean something. Dr. King simply smiled and said, “Hey, Holliday.”

Two years after that night in Harlem, in August 1968, a racially charged shooting at the Sixteenth Street Transit Bus Station left three young people dead and six others wounded. In the days following the shooting, amid protests, Dr. King turned to Mr. Holliday for help.

He called Mr. Holliday and asked if he would be willing to walk with him between police headquarters and the courthouse, where the case would be heard.

To read more about Holliday, click here.

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