Even though it took place 55 years ago, the hour or so of conversation Dr. James H. Latimer shared across the dinner table with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seems like it happened yesterday.

The dinner took place in Boston, where Latimer, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was studying for his master’s degree in music at Boston University. The dinner with King came about, Latimer said, because King’s sister-in-law Edythe Scott Bagley lived with Latimer and his wife for several weeks after she moved to Boston.

King was on his way to New Hampshire, to give a speech at a church there. New England was familiar territory to King. According to the New England Historical Society, King called Boston—where he lived while obtaining his doctorate in theology from Boston University and where he’d met his wife, Coretta Scott King—his second home. He’d also spent two summers as a Morehouse College student laboring in the tobacco fields in Simsbury, Connecticut.

King and the pastor of that New Hampshire church were among five or six people at the dinner, remembered Latimer.

“I sat right across from Dr. King,” Latimer told UMOJA Magazine in an interview last month. “I talked to him at length. And then I heard him speak several times in New England and all the way out to Wisconsin, after that initial contact.” 

Latimer said he more than once saw King speak in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard University is located. 

“He was as busy as a cat on a hot tin roof, because he was trying to knit together this interest to keep the momentum going and try and get civil rights as a matter of fact on the agenda,” Latimer said. “And, of course, he was competing with wars and other things, but he managed to successfully do it.” 

What was King like up close? 

“He was just a regular fella in conversation,” Latimer said. “I was impressed—I still am.”

Dr. James Latimer

King’s tone during that dinner in 1965 may have been conversational but just below the surface of his table talk shimmered the sonorous cadences, honed in the pulpit and burnished by the English of the King James Bible, that marked his sermons and speeches.  

“He always spoke eloquently,” Latimer said. “If you were a poet it would be in rhyme. You know, he would make things logical.” 

King was one of a kind, said Latimer, but President Barack Obama reminds him more than a little of King. 

“They have this rhyme with life, which means they are in it for the long haul. There’s music in their speeches. You wouldn’t actually sing, but it was making much musical sense for me.” 

Few people have more musical sense than Latimer, a percussionist who came to Madison in 1968 as the timpanist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. That same year, he was hired as an instructor at the UW-Madison School of Music, where he taught until he retired in 1999. During his career, Latimer performed with a long list of luminaries including Max Roach, Duke Ellington, and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. 

The year Latimer arrived in Madison was one of the most turbulent in U.S. history—one rocked by violent student protests against the war in Vietnam, urban uprisings, and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and King.

Latimer himself experienced racial animus in Madison. In an interview he gave in 1994 as part of the UW-Madison Archives Oral History project, Latimer said he’s twice had crosses burned on his lawn during his time in Madison. And when he retired from the School of Music in 1999, he and bassist Richard Davis were the only Black faculty members in the school.

Memories of King were a constant inspiration, Latimer said—especially memories of King’s purpose and discipline.  

“So, you’re talking some heavy stuff,” Latimer said of the King’s dedication to nonviolence. 

“I say to myself that they proceeded with rhyme and reason. They were just focused all the time.”

What was the one aspect of King’s personality that shone through at that dinner all those years ago? 

“Humility,” Latimer said. “It was just a beautiful conversation, and a logical conversation. And you felt the urgency to recognize the essence of what they were doing. That was just it. There was no other consideration. Beautiful experience. Beautiful experience.”