My Favorite MLK Photo

Photo credit: Bob Fitch, a staff photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) , Montgomery, Alabama airport, 1966

In 1995, I found this photo in a display in the Chicago airport after an interview for an English Education Professor job at the University of Georgia. The whole interview went south after one of the professors at UGA, an editor of a famous book on young adult literature invited me into her office for a 30 minute grilling that began with this question:

“Do you like young adult literature?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Name some titles.”
“…Ummm…” My mind was retrieving nothing.

Nothing. Blank. I was finishing a doctoral course on young adult literature, but I couldn’t remember any of the books on the syllabus. I felt owned. I’d prepared for questions on phenomenology and Foucault. She had to have known I was a poser…Why else would she ask a question like that? I have never felt more uncomfortable and out of place.

I wanted to cry in the Atlanta airport. Actually, I was literally tearing up when I happened upon that photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Andy Young. They’re sitting in Mad Men clothing in 1966 in the Montgomery AL airport. You feel the weight on King. He’s hunched over, one hand resting on a polished shoe, the other holding a new cigarette. Young sits at a distance, crisp, thoughtful, focused on MLK.

How many death threats did they face? What was the pressure doing to their loved ones? When was King going to step into the public eye again? In a documentary I’d seen, the camera follows him at the front of a march when a fire-cracker goes off. King’s whole body flinches— maybe wondering if that would be his last moment — but he keeps walking.

I realized that MLK did what I was most afraid to do, put himself in situations where he could fail big and fail publically. King probably failed at more things in a week than I had in a lifetime, but he kept taking the next step.

I felt such a personal connection to that poster that I looked at it for half an hour, studying every bit of it so that I could find the image again one day. It took me years searching archives, and then I found it three years ago in the Stanford University Library. The photo was taken by Bob Fitch, a staff photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was president.

This is my first independent blog post. I write for Edutopia and ApLitHelp, and other places, too. But in this space, I’m going to try and learn who I am — who we all are — and give my perspective on both. If you’re one of the handful of people who put your eyes on this post, maybe you’re a searcher too. And maybe you’ve failed stuff. Maybe we can give each other some courage.


If you like my writing, you’ll love my funny teaching memoir, Dinkytown Braves, free on Kindle Unlimited and $10.33 as a paperback. Also check out Rethinking Classroom Design  (Rowan & Littlefield) co-written with Blake Wiggs or The Best Lesson Series: Literature: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works, edited by Brian Sztabnik. Please leave a review on Amazon to make my day!

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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