How A New York Photographer Befriended The Greatest Civil Rights Leader Of All Time

Benedict J. FernandezKing addresses the New Politics Convention at the Chicago Coliseum.

Protest photographer Benedict Fernandez got to know some of the most famous icons of the 1960s, but one of his most lasting encounters involved Martin Luther King Jr.

Fernandez — who photographed virtually every major protest movement of the ’60s — met King a couple of years before his 1968 assassination.

In the late ’60s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation contracted Fernandez to take King’s picture for the cover of the civil rights leader’s book, “The Trumpet of Conscience.”

As CBC’s New York stringer, Fernandez went down to Washington D.C. to photograph King after a speech he gave there. The affable Fernandez convinced King to let him come to the civil rights leader’s home in Georgia so he could photograph him candidly and get “the full story.”

In an interview with Business Insider, Fernandez described King:

King was a very guarded man. Once you became his friend, there was no problem, but in order to get there, he put you through “question and answer” periods [where he asked you questions about who you were, what you thought about certain things, etc]. Fortunately, I passed … The main reason that King allowed me to come to dinner and spend time with his family was that I had become good friends with his wife Coretta and his children. Most people never got that close. King was a very private man and he wasn’t chatty, partially because he was rarely home.

Fernandez also grew close King because he was photographing at home, when he was around his family.

© Benedict J. FernandezKing enjoys lunch with his family after church in Atlanta, Georgia. Circa 1968.

One incident in particular broke the ice between the two men. Fernandez was eating dinner at King’s home, and his host brought out a jar of hot green chilli peppers. Fernandez started eating them and exclaiming how much he liked the peppers — shocking King because so few people adore such hot peppers. Little did Fernandez know they were one of King’s favourite foods.

“He then went into this elaborate monologue about hot peppers,” Fernandez said. “He said, ‘You know the value of hot peppers? They warm you in the winter and they cool you in the summer!'”

The exchange cemented their friendship. While King held many people at arms’ length, he began to warm up to Fernandez.

“He was a man of mystery, but how many people knew he loved hot peppers?” Fernandez said, laughing. “Me!”

© Benedict J. FernandezMartin Luther King, Jr. with his daughter Bonnie at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Atlanta, Georgia, February 1968.

Fernandez ended up following King from speech to speech for the last years of his life, much to the chagrin of many of King’s close associates.

“Some of his associates had problems with me because I was white and I was so close to King. They considered the movement to be a black movement. King didn’t,” Fernandez said. “He had no problem [that I was white]. Eventually, I started speaking Spanish to show them that I was a minority too. That eased tensions.”

Fernandez now has the most complete photo collection of King ever taken. One of those photos, of King laughing, surprised a New York editor who was looking at Fernandez’s archive. Photos showing King laughing are rare, and the editor asked Fernandez how he got the picture.

Fernandez answered with a laugh, “I told a joke!”

The Bronx Documentary Center is running a retrospective of Benedict Fernandez’s work, including numerous photos from his Martin Luther King collection. The exhibition runs until July 20.

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