Image holds strong memories for family of King bodyguard
Helen Batson, 70, shows off the picture she received from her son Barry Batson, Jr. that shows her late husband Barry Batson, left, escorting Dr. Martin Luther King at Soldier Field in 1966. (Photo by Zbigniew Bzdak)
The shot, taken July 6, 1966, showed Martin Luther King Jr. surrounded by tense police bodyguards as he entered Soldier Field to make the biggest speech of a summer-long campaign to confront racism in the city.
The photo evokes the heat and drama of the moment as the bodyguards, aware of threats to King's life, trudge warily at his side. Behind them, the stadium's Grecian columns seem to float atop the waiting throngs in the stands.
"I just saw the strangest thing," Cox-Batson told her husband, Barry, when she returned from her run, "a picture of your dad in a gallery window, a photograph when he was with Dr. King."
The chance discovery sent Barry Batson out the door for a look. What he found was the best image he had ever seen of his late father at work, on the most important and dangerous assignment Barry Batson Sr. ever had as a Chicago policeman.
It was one of 90 photos in the first all-color exhibit by legendary Chicago photographer Art Shay, three of which showed King in Chicago on a visit that touched countless people.
But for the Batsons, the one image unleashed an emotional torrent of memories about the African-American family's connection to a remarkable moment in the city's history, and how Barry Batson Sr. spent every waking hour for days and weeks with one of the 20th century's most important figures, trying to protect him from harm.
"The word in the streets was that somebody would try to kill Dr. King in Chicago," said Helen Batson, 70, Barry Sr.'s widow. "My husband said 'It's not going to happen on my watch.' "
She was so excited when her son told her of the photograph, she drove from her South Side home to the gallery to see it. The image showing her late husband -- a trim, 6-foot, 4-inch man in a blue sports coat and brown fedora, at King's side -- was on sale for $1,500, and she wanted it.
"I called the gallery right away and asked Tom Masters not to sell it to anyone else," said her son, Barry Jr., a United Airlines pilot.
It was in 1966 that King shifted his campaign against racial injustice from the southern states to the northern cities. His first target was Chicago, where he rented a slum apartment on the West Side. Flying into town every week, he lived at the apartment for three or four days, launching a series of civil disobedience actions demanding open housing around the city.
King had electrified the world with his "I have a dream" speech three years earlier, and two years earlier had won the Nobel Peace Price.
Mayor Richard J. Daley and Democratic machine politicians, many of them blacks with sizable followings, weren't happy that King had singled out the city. They used considerable political prowess all spring and summer implying that he was an outsider complicating their efforts to right the wrongs he publicized.
But Daley also knew King, hated by white supremacists, was a prime target for assassination, and the mayor did not want that stain on his city. As King led marches and rallies confronting violent counter-demonstrators in all-white Chicago neighborhoods, Daley ordered police to do everything in their power to keep King safe, and asked district commanders to recommend their most trusted men for the job.
"My husband was a young patrolman, 32 years old and just three years on the force, but everyone knew he was honest and absolutely fearless," said Helen Batson. "He was a wonderful shot who really knew guns and how to use them. He had a reputation as somebody who worked hard and paid attention to his job, and he was a good family man who went home at the end of the day."
Among many police officers, feelings ran high against King as they escorted marchers walking into brick and bottle barrages in angry white neighborhoods. But Batson always told his wife that King was "a good man."
"My husband told me that sometimes Dr. King would be so nervous he would be shaking, but he was determined that he was going to go on doing what he had to do," Batson said.
"He kept his finger on the trigger," she said of her husband, "and if anybody came after Dr. King, my husband would have stopped it. I'm certain of that."
Each time King flew to Chicago, she said, her husband picked him up at the airport and drove him everywhere, staying with him until King retired for the night. One week Batson urged his pregnant wife, expecting their second child that August, to go with him to pick up King at the airport. She sat in the backseat and King sat in front while her husband drove.
"You're going to have a son, and he's going to make you proud," she said King told her as they chatted. Barry Jr., their only son, was born that August.
"After that, I rode along every once in awhile. One time when we dropped him at his apartment, he asked me if I wanted to see it. So we went up and his wife, Coretta, was there. He was just a regular sort of person to talk with, full of fun, but there was a spirit that followed that man that made me think he was different from anybody else."
Shay, on assignment for Time Magazine, often followed King that spring and summer. The Soldier Field photograph was one of thousands he took at Chicago marches and rallies, and he soon forgot about it. It was never published.
Shay's black and white photos, stretching from the 1940s to present, are highly regarded by museums and collectors. An archivist helping him organize hundreds of thousands images assisted him in putting together his first all-color exhibit at the Masters Gallery through Feb. 25.
A number of Shay's other photos of King are in the exhibit too, most notably some he made for Life Magazine in Memphis the day a sniper murdered King in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Helen Batson recalled how thunderstruck her husband was that night.
"He was almost motionless," she said. "He just sat there for hours, not wanting to talk."
Batson went on to a long career in the police department, most of it on the West Side, much of it as a community service officer where he taught basketball and tennis to kids in the West Side's poorest, most crime-ridden areas. "He was the father to 500 boys out in those streets," his widow said.
All four of the Batsons' children went to college. One daughter became a doctor, another a teacher, the third a sales executive. They had grown up knowing all about King and what he represented.
"Dr. King's message was a message of love, and my dad was always telling us that. He was always telling me to look for the good even in bad people," Barry Batson Jr. said.
"Dr. King inspired my parents' generation to go out and achieve, and they did. It made it much easier for my generation."