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State leader recalls speech, friendship with Martin Luther King Jr.

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DURHAM, N.C. -

Thousands gathered 50 years ago in Washington D.C. to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his now-famous "I have a dream" speech.

North Carolina State Representative Mickey Michaux Jr. is one of the few people who can say they were not only there, but was near King as he spoke.

"Martin is facing the crowd and I'm to his right back about three or four rows back over on the side. Not on the stand, but over on the side," he said.

Michaux, who was 33-years-old at the time, said he also spoke with King and a received a preview, of sorts, of the speech.

"When he finally got there, we talked a little bit more. I said, ‘What are you going to talk about?' He said, ‘Well, I got a little bit of a speech here, but it's just some of the same things, but trying to bolster people to make sure that they understand where we're going, and what we're going to do and how we're going to have to try to get there," Michaux said.

To be there was "exhilarating," Michaux said.

"I looked out there and I said, ‘I can't believe all these people are here.'

He almost missed it. Michaux was scheduled to be in Chicago for a meeting of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. He attended the March on Washington at the request of King, who sent a message to him the Saturday before the Wednesday march.

"Well, it was funny because a lot of the folks said, ‘We didn't know how many people we were going to have out there.' I guess they were trying to round up folks anyway. When Bernard (Lee) called me and he said, ‘Martin said you got to be there.' I said, ‘OK, I'll be there.'"

Michaux said there was a "sense that something was happening out there," but did not know the extent to which the speech would impact America.

"I told him afterwards, ‘Great speech. I'll see you later.' I got back on the plane to Chicago," Michaux said.

He said he didn't realize the of the magnitude of the speech at the time.

"Martin always had a way of arousing people, which was something that I had sort of become accustomed to."

Michaux said he went to a boarding school near Greensboro with King's brother. He used that as a way to recruit King to a business leaders meeting in Durham in 1956.

After that, Michaux said he and King were in frequent contact. Michaux said he's lost count of the times King visited Durham – both officially and unofficially. Michaux said King always stayed with his family.

"He really liked my parents, and like I say, he liked my mother's cooking," he said.

Michaux has few pictures of he and Dr. King, who he calls "Martin."

"Nobody ever thought of pictures. Whatever was taken, somebody else took them," he said.

"Sitting at the dining room table in our home, been an excellent opportunity just to take snapshots. But, when you're friends with people you never realize until it's too late that you were in the presence of greatness."

He treasures a book King signed for him in San Francisco.

"It says, ‘To my dear friend, Mickey Michaux, for whom I have great respect and admiration, Martin."

Michaux has made a career in law, real estate and politics. He also was the first African-American to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. He credits King with his venture into politics, saying he never thought about running for office until King suggested it.

"It was set in motion in '56 when I first met Martin. I never had any idea of entering into politics, none at all."

Michaux attended a 25-year reunion of the March on Washington, but did not make the trek back for the 50th anniversary.

"I did want to be there, but I don't want to be there," he said.

"It will never match what was there 50 years ago."

Memories of the civil rights movement bring out emotions in him.

"It's sort of like PTSD, post-traumatic stress syndrome, that you get as a result of that."

But, he can't help but reflect on the milestone of five decades passing since that famous march and speech.

"Much of the dream has basically been accomplished, except the change in basic attitudes, there's still some semblance of racism which you can't deny is still there," he said.

"I think it showed the mettle that inspires people to really want to make progress. I think it was the beginning of a progressive state," Michaux said.

"I think the spirit of that movement, the spirit of what happened in Washington on that day, sort of permeates everything we do today," he said.

Justin Quesinberry

Justin is a reporter for WNCN and a North Carolina native. He has spent the better part of the last decade covering the news in central North Carolina.  More>>

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