Memories from the Chair: Dr. King’s Barber Pays Tribute
By Gabrielle Phifer
The holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday features a parade of black-and-white photographs and memories archived by the gatekeepers of the Civil Rights Movement. We are reminded of the slain leader’s powerful voice in his “I Have a Dream Speech”, and we mourn anew each time we see the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. And, we are blessed with the up-and-close personal when those who knew Dr. King share their stories.
“Martin Luther King was a hero for the black people and a lot of the white people. You can’t be more passionate and humane,” says Dr. King’s barber, Nelson Malden.
Malden, who is 83, met Dr. King in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Malden was a student at Alabama State College. He didn’t have much money so he began working at College Hill Barbershop. As the youngest barber, Malden had the chance to catch all the new customers. One of those new customers happened to be Dr. King, who wasn’t very well-known at the time.
Malden remembers, “After I finished cutting his hair, I gave him the mirror like you do most of the new customers to see if he liked his hair cut before he got out of the chair. He told me it was ‘pretty good’.
Two weeks passed. Dr. King came back and wanted another cut. Malden was busy at the time, but Dr. King wait until Malden finished.
As King began to sit in the chair, the young college student said, “That’s must’ve been a pretty good haircut I gave you.” Malden says King smiled and replied, “You alright.”
Malden says King was full of dry wit, but that’s what made their relationship so solid. Many of Malden’s memories of King include the laughs they had together.
King succeeded Rev. Vernon Johns as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. Rev. Johns was very popular during his tenure because of his stance on Civil Rights. Whites and Blacks from all over would come to hear him preach. But, it seems like fate brought King to Montgomery after Johnson.
“His daddy didn’t want him to come to Montgomery. He thought his son would be better if he went to Chattanooga, Tennessee at the First Baptist Church there,” Malden states. “If he had gone to Chattanooga, he would probably be living today but by coming to Montgomery I think he was just God sent.”
Rev. King picked up the social justice reins after Johnson. The Atlanta-born King eventually won the hearts of Montgomery’s black residents after a meeting in the church basement to organize the Montgomery bus boycott. After the bus boycott, King’s profile rose as the leader of the Movement.
The barbershop became a safe place for King. “He spent a lot of time in the barbershop because three of his children were born on that street. He would get away from his family, do a lot of reading and writing in the barbershop,” recalls Malden. “It was the black people’s country club. It was the only place black men could meet.”
Malden and his brothers branched out in 1958 and opened their own shop. King followed because it was much closer to his home, and time had cemented the friendship with Malden. When King left Montgomery in 1960, he would always visit the Malden Brothers Barbershop to get his hair cut.
Malden’s last memory of King was a few months before he died. He usually traveled with bodyguards, but his last trip to the shop was different. He traveled alone. Malden’s brother asked King, “Where are your security guards?” King replied, “The man upstairs is with me.”
It’s been 48 years since an assassin’s bullet stole the life of one of the world’s most beloved leaders and Nelson Malden’s friend. The country’s first Black president leaves office in a matter of days. But, there is still potent racism in America.
“I think he would be very proud. I don’t think he would be too proud right now with what’s going on in Washington with Trump. We’re still ahead, but it’s only one real world, and we have to recognize the reality of what’s really going on,” the now-retired Malden says.