In honor of Martin Luther King Day, we revisit this column from Richard Press, which originally ran in 2013 and was updated in 2018 with an extended version of the story and a new photo of his father, pictured later in life, standing in front of the very rack from which he was honored to bequeath a necktie to the civil rights icon.
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In 1961 my father was asked by the leader of Congregation Mishkan Israel to make a pickup at the New Haven train station. The arriving passenger, scheduled to address our reform congregation from the synagogue’s pulpit that evening, was a man whom our rabbi, Robert E. Goldberg, had met as a fellow inmate in a Georgia jailhouse.
The passenger’s name was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A rabbi with a prison record, Robert Goldberg is better known as not only the person who officiated at the wedding of his close friend, playwright Arthur Miller, to Marilyn Monroe, but also as the man who oversaw the actress’s conversion to Judaism prior to the couple’s 1956 marriage. Monroe’s conversion process was famously little more than a two-hour lecture by Goldberg that was described by Miller as less theological than it was “humanistic.” According to an account at the Jewish American Hall of Fame website, on the day of her conversion, Monroe was gifted a musical menorah that played Hatikvah (“The Hope”), the national anthem of Israel.
An early and longtime champion of civil rights and social justice, Rabbi Goldberg was arrested with Dr. King in 1961 during a peaceful demonstration in Albany, Georgia, that was organized to help end the segregation of the city’s public facilities and give African Americans the right to vote. The two men were assigned as cellmates, and during the course of their discussions Goldberg invited the great man to speak at his spanking new temple on Ridge Road in Hamden, Connecticut.
Since one of the many responsibilities of the president of the Congregation Mishkan was to provide transportation to visiting speakers and visitors, it fell to my dad to pick up MLK at the railroad station on the day he was to speak from the pulpit to the congregants at our temple. Following the event, as they made their way back to the train station, it soon became clear that both men were famished. Dad suggested they head over to Yankee Doodle, a burger shop and college hangout located directly behind the J. Press store on York Street.
After both men made short work of the cheeseburgers, fries, and chocolate milkshakes at the narrow sandwich counter, Dr. King suggested, “How about taking a visiting preacher on a tour of J. Press?”
My dad often spoke of how Dr. King closely and curiously examined the hundreds of ties strewn along the open counter, picking up reps, ancient madders, and wool challis and asking about the history of each and how they should be worn. Interrupting his visitor’s line of questioning, dad chose a midnight blue emblematic tie with crests from one of the Yale colleges and folded it into a long narrow tie bag emblazoned with J. Press’ circular logo.
“It’s on me,” he told King. “But you’ve got to promise me you’ll wear the tie and show the bag.”
Several years later, my father and Dr. King happened to meet by chance at the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Taking a chance that the recent Nobel Laureate would recall the night at the Doodle as clearly as he did, my dad quickly made his way over to the civil rights leader.
“Dr. King, you may not remember me,” my father began. Martin Luther King jumped in without missing a beat.
“You’re Paul Press, Bob Goldberg’s friend from New Haven,” interrupted Dr. King. “Don’t worry, Mr. Press, I still wear the tie, but I threw out the bag.” — RICHARD PRESS