This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day has taken on a whole new meaning for many people. Over the past year, we have seen a renewed push for an end to racial injustice, systemic bias, and disproportionate medical care as COVID-19 continues to kill black Americans at a rate that is nearly three times that of white Americans.
These experiences call for us to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose work led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, ending state-sponsored discrimination.
Nurse Janie Young Price was lucky enough to have known MLK. They were college friends just starting out their careers in a country divided by race.
Price remembers first meeting MLK when the two were in college in Atlanta, GA. They would often get together with their friends on Saturday nights and dance to whatever was playing on the jukebox. Price and King quickly became friends as they started sharing stories about growing up in segregated St. Augustine, Florida.
“He was refined, and a gentleman,” Price remembers of MLK. “And some men are not.”
At the time, Price was studying to be a nurse at Grady Memorial Hospital, while King was enrolled at Morehouse College. Like most medical facilities in the country, Grady Memorial was segregated at the time. Price says the black nurses had to wear pink uniforms, while the white students wore blue.
Price eventually moved back to St. Augustine, FL. As the years went by, she remembered her college friend as young Martin. The Civil Rights Movement was picking up steam across the country, but Price didn’t correlate the sweet young man she had met in college with the towering national figure he’d become.
A Powerful Reunion
King would always remember Price and the times they shared together. He was in the middle of a national campaign that would eventually lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act when he decided to visit his childhood home of St. Augustine.
During the campaign, King had to be moved from safe house to safe house to keep him out of danger, considering the forces that were working against him. However, Price quickly answered the call and volunteered to host King during his time in the city. She remembers picking him up at the airport in her Buick Electra 225 and driving him back to her house as members of the Ku Klux Klan followed them home.
Price was never one to stand down in the face of danger. She woke up one morning to find her Electra flipped over. She quickly had it moved to its upright position so she could drive around and show people that she wasn’t afraid.
“He wasn’t going to let people scare him, and neither was I,” Price said. “We took that risk, because if you let people frighten you, they’ll do it. I had to show them I was not afraid of what they could do.”
Price also remembers getting anonymous calls asking her if there were any white people staying at the house as they threatened to blow it up. Price recalls, “I told them, ‘I’ll be ready for you.’ They never came.”
Their friendship continued as MLK continued his work all over the country. They would have long phone calls and discussions about their faith.
“He said he knew he would be assassinated—he didn’t know where or when—but he didn’t dwell on that,” Price said. “God puts us all here for a purpose, and he knew his.”
At one point, Price remembers asking King if he was afraid for his life. If it’s not worth dying for, King told Price, it simply isn’t worth doing.
Just a few years later, King was murdered on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
“He knew he wasn’t going to be here for long,” Price said. “It was a beautiful thing to be acquainted with him. He’s in history now.”
As for the home they shared in St. Augustine all those years ago, 156 Central Ave has been renamed 56 Martin Luther King Avenue with a “Freedom Trail” plaque recounting everything that happened there.
“I’m very honored to have known a man with such great power, and he will never die,” Price said. “He will never die, as long as there’s a black person alive. He finished what God put him here for.”