When the phone rang, Michael Rockland was reading a Spanish newspaper with a photograph of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his holiness Pope Paul VI in Italy on the cover. The year was 1964.
On the other end of the call was the ambassador to Spain, asking Rockland — a cultural attaché in the American Foreign Service — to take King out for a “day off” to “relax and be a tourist” in Madrid.
He leapt at the chance.
“It means so very much to me to this day, to be close with him as a human being, not as a great American icon,” Rockland recalls during the first Politics on the PublicMind lecture of the Spring 2013 semester.
After Rockland arranged an impromptu press conference to ward off paparazzi and reporters, the two men took to the city streets. For lunch, they stopped at “the oldest restaurant in the world,” Botin Restaurant near Plaza Mayor, which is also the location of the last scene in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises.” Afterwards, Rockland took King shopping for trinkets for Coretta Scott King and his children. King bought bullfight posters for his sons, Rockland says, and flamenco dolls for his daughters.
The two spent most of the day strolling through a park in Madrid, drinking coffee and talking. They talked history — about all kinds — long before the days of studying black, gay or women’s history, says Rockland. “I asked him, ‘Why do you want to remember black history?’” says Rockland. “It’s because it’s who I am,” King responded after inquiring whether Rockland, a Jew, would want to forget his people’s difficult history. “He was always a lot of steps ahead of all of us,” says Rockland.
Rockland and King dined together and then parted at King’s hotel after Rockland made airport arrangements. King was to fly to Amsterdam the following day for a Baptist convention.
“I walked him as far as I could go in the airport, and he turned around and gave me a big embrace,” says Rockland. “It was one of the great moments of my life. What a wonderful day.”
During his tenure in Spain, the author and Rutgers University professor also managed to avoid shaking hands with Generalissimo Francisco Franco at an event and witnessed America’s accidental drop four of unarmed hydrogen bombs on Palomares, a small town on the Mediterranean Sea.
Rockland details all these experiences and more in his new book, “An American Diplomat in Franco Spain.”
The Politics on the PublicMind lecture series continues on Tuesday, Feb. 19 with Michael Lacy, a professor of media studies at Queens College. He’ll talk about “The Media, Race and Hurricane Katrina.” On Tuesday, March 5, Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University will discuss “The Year of the Woman…Again!”
To reserve a seat, email Cesar Correa at firstname.lastname@example.org. The sessions are free to students, faculty, staff and alumni. Politics on the PublicMind is a joint effort between the University’s PublicMind™ Poll and the College at Florham Library.
PublicMind is a survey research group that examines politics, society, popular culture, consumer and economic trends.