The King & I

A child is forever changed after meeting the civil rights hero

“The story is my mother’s and you have to write that,” she insisted. So here it is ...

Early one Saturday morning in 1966, seven-year-old Debbie’s mother woke her up, told her to get dressed and ushered her out the door to be a witness to history. It wasn’t until she was standing in the middle of a gathering crowd on a nearby street that her mom finally told her what was happening. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had just moved into their impoverished neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.

Students of history know Dr. King had come to participate in the Chicago Freedom Movement, taking on civil rights issues such as school desegregation and fair housing. When Debbie’s mother found out he was scheduled to speak outside his home, she knew she had to go. She was hoping to get a glimpse of—perhaps even touch—greatness.

But why was Debbie, the fifth of eight children, there with her? Why did her mother drag her out of bed and no one else? It’s a question Debbie wrestles with to this day as she recalls what happened next. As Dr. King emerged from his apartment, the cameras began clicking and, “you could just feel the momentum building,” she recalls. Debbie doesn’t remember what he said or how long he spoke, but she’ll never forget that deep baritone voice, that slow and mesmerizing Southern drawl. “It felt like we were all in church,” she says.

When his remarks were over, King moved toward the crowd, ever acknowledging the people’s desire to connect with him in some meaningful, even spiritual, way. “He was slow in making his way down,” Debbie remembers. “It was clear that he was trying to touch and shake hands with anyone he could. Everyone had their hands reached out to him.”

As he drew closer, she knew it would soon be her mother’s turn. But when the time came, rather than offer her hand to his, Debbie’s mother scooped her up and thrust her forward. Her mom lost her footing and stumbled. King reached for Debbie, breaking the fall. And then he looked at her, acknowledging her presence before releasing her back to her mother. “He truly saw me,” says Debbie. “That was my mother’s moment and she gave it to me.”

There was a lot to think about on the walk back home that morning. Much had changed and even then, as a young girl, Debbie was aware of the significance of that encounter, that divine appointment. And while she still had no idea why she was chosen to accompany her mother that day, she knew she’d been sent a message and her life quickly grew to have meaning. “I wasn’t a bad kid,” Debbie says, “but I had nothing to hope for.”

Against all odds, this child of a single mother with only an eighth-grade education excelled in school and soon became the only person in her family to attend college, then medical school. She credits her mother’s sacrifice in that singular moment outside Dr. King’s home for putting her on a path to success.

“The man changed the trajectory of my life,” she says. “Metaphorically, he really broke that fall.”

Looking back, Debbie also feels like something existential happened that day. “It felt like he had transferred that greatness to me somehow,” she says. “It’s like his life grew inside of me.”

Today, at fifty-four, Debbie Jones practices medicine as a hospitalist at St. Mary’s, and she revels in sharing her story with people, especially kids, to motivate them to see greatness in themselves. Her own achievements are a great source of pride for her family, especially her mother, who was able to retire thanks to her daughter’s generosity. “My prayer was to let her live long enough that I could take care of her.”

In addition to a day of honor and celebration, Dr. King’s birthday is a time of deep reflection for many Americans who ponder his life and contributions as well as their own. For Debbie, it’s also a judgment day of sorts.

“Each year, when I celebrate his birthday I ask myself, ‘Have I done anything to disgrace that moment? Have I done anything to honor it?’”

Most certainly, the latter.

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