Extra: A Conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King’s Barber
Malden Brothers Barbershop sits on Jackson St. in Centennial Hill, a once bustling neighborhood in Montgomery that catered to black citizens at a time when Montgomery was dominated by segregation.
Many of the most iconic figures of the civil rights movement were patrons.
Nelson Malden was Dr. King’s barber. He remembers their first meeting.
“I saw the blue Pontiac pull up in front of the shop, and I figured it must have been a customer coming to get a haircut. I looked at his head. I said, ‘Heck I can knock him out in 15 minutes,'” Malden said.
The man in that blue Pontiac would change the world.
“I asked him what was his name. He said Martin Luther King. I said, ‘Where you from?’ He said, Atlanta, Georgia. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’m here to preach my crown sermon at Dexter.’ I said, ‘Oh good to meet you,'” Malden said about their first conversation.
It was 1954 when Malden first met Dr. King. At the time, Malden was still a student at Alabama State University and King was a rookie preacher taking his first assignment to pastor a church. Over the next eight years, what started as a haircut would develop into a friendship.
“The barbershop they always referred to as the black man’s country club. We talked about some of everything, you talk about religion, you talk about politics, sometimes you talk about sex,” Malden said.
The barbershop was a place of refuge, a place where fathers took their sons, and people left feeling empowered and enlightened. Dr. King and his family lived at 309 South Jackson Street, less than a block away from the barbershop.
“Everything is still basically the same. We’ve got pictures on the wall of some of the people that we accommodated,” he said.
Dr. King did more than just get his hair cut.
“He’d come down to the barbershop and do a little writing and sometimes do a little reading. We had a trash can in the back where he would sometimes throw away little notes he scribbled, and I said to myself, ‘Man, if I would have saved some of those notes, I could have brought everybody in Montgomery a Porsche,” Malden said.
Later, King became so recognizable that he traveled with security. Malden believes the security was provided by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. But after delivering a speech denouncing the Vietnam War in 1967, the security disappeared.
“My brother asked him, ‘Where is your security now?’. We had never discussed security with him. That’s when he took his finger and said the man upstairs is with me now. That was the very last word I heard him say,” Malden remembers.
Exactly one year after his speech in New York City, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
After his death, the civil rights act would become law and integration began. But Montgomery’s Centennial Hill community was falling into disrepair, and black-owned businesses struggled to keep up with their corporate competition.
“Reverend King said you better be careful what you ask for. You might get it. So we asked for integration, but we had no idea the impact it would have on black business,” Malden said.
Over the years, Malden complied dozens of photographs of King and other prominent figures from the movement who were customers of the barbershop.
Last year, he donated 16 of the priceless relics to the Smithsonian Institution.
Today, people are still fighting for social equality and civil rights. Would King be proud or disappointed?
“There’s no question the whole country made progress, but I think he would be very disturbed to see what’s going on in Washington right now,” Malden said.
Dr. King pastored Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1954 to 1960. Malden Brothers Barbershop is still open in its original location on the ground floor of the Ben Moore Hotel building.
— Alabama News Network (@ALNewsNetwork) February 14, 2020
For the full interview with Nelson Malden,
- :30 Centennial Hill
- 1:30 Ben Moore Hotel
- 2:15 Martin Luther King Jr.
- 4:00 Barbershop Conversations
- 6:00 MLK Frustrated
- 7:25 Smithsonian Institute
- 9:00 Montgomery Improvement Association
- 10:40 If they were here now
- 14:30 The Fall of Centennial Hill
- 17:30 MLK in the Barbershop