Listen to John Bustamante’s recollections of time shared with Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59).
John H. Bustamante has affectionate memories of the lively theology student who shared his room in Myles Standish Hall more than half a century ago. The young man from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr., steered Bustamante toward a lifetime in the civil rights movement. Their friendship spanned some of the most turbulent decades in the nation’s history.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t think of him,” says Bustamante (LAW’52, CAS’53) now 80 years old, a retired lawyer whose father, brother, two daughters, and a son all went to BU. During their campus years, and later when Bustamante, his brother George (LAW’54), and King (GRS’55, Hon.’59) shared a Dorchester apartment, he marveled at King’s gregariousness and fierce study habits, his outsized ambition, and his commitment to his Baptist faith.
“We relied a lot on King because he was already a minister when he came to BU and was preaching in different places,” Bustmante recalls. “He was so prolific, so aware, that when he preached anyplace, all of us would go, even to the suburbs.”
Bustamante remembers the black student gathering where King first laid eyes on an aspiring soprano from the New England Conservatory named Coretta Scott.
“It was in the social room of Myles Standish,” he says. “We had an organization for the improvement of black students in the New England area, and there were social activities, a way of looking after each other when things weren’t going right. They would come to BU because we could house them overnight without anybody knowing it.”
It was a great night. “She was a gracious woman,” says Bustamante, “very nice-looking, very friendly, and she and I were talking. I’d met her a few times before, but this was King’s first sight of her. I think it was a situation made in heaven.”
With Boston’s Baptist community riveted by his preaching and Coretta at his side, King’s circle grew. The Dorchester apartment drew friends and followers like a magnet, according to Bustamante, with “untold numbers of visitors coming from the other schools.” The roommates housed and fed the visitors, who would join in civil rights discussions.
“Out of that grew a real strength for all of us,” he says. “We didn’t have a heck of a lot of money, but we’d go in Martin’s Chevrolet to see Cab Calloway; that’s how we made our little lives together. King would set out times to study, and we all knew that. But he made the fun.”
King was “a very unusual person considering the time,” says Bustamante. What set him apart was his steadfast embrace of nonviolence, a doctrine born out of his studies of Mahatma Gandhi.
“While he was at BU, it was the beginning of his thoughts about how to do something about easing the tensions of black folks in the South. We set up the first Boston chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest black fraternity in the nation. At the meetings we had some serious discussions about civil rights, and joined him in our work through the South, marching and what have you.” They often differed on strategy, and priorities. “We argued all the time,” says Bustamante, who went on to earn a second graduate degree, from Harvard.
He remembers the budding civil rights icon as not just charismatic, but brazenly confident. “I remember once, when a senior member of our fraternity asked King, ‘Who is the greatest man you’ve ever met?’ King’s response was, ‘Me.’”
Bustamante’s son Andre recalls King’s visit to the family’s new, still unfinished home in Cleveland. King spontaneously grabbed a pen and scrawled his autograph on the bare drywall. “I tried to find a way to take that wall with me when we sold the house,” says the younger Bustamante.
An attorney in Cleveland, where he founded a minority bank and published the Call & Post, the city’s leading African-American newspaper, John Bustamante remained a confidant and legal advisor to the Nobel laureate until King’s assassination in Memphis in April 1968, at the age of 39. Bustamante is on the board of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation and was a founder and incorporator of the Citizenship Education Fund, an arm of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s organization Rainbow/PUSH. Bustamante hit the front pages in January 2001, one of several of Jackson’s associates pardoned by outgoing President Bill Clinton for a variety of finance-related offenses. Bustamante had been convicted of wire fraud.
After their BU years, King would stop at the Bustamante home in Cleveland’s Shaker Heights whenever he was nearby. Andre Bustamante has childhood memories of watching “Uncle Martin” hold forth at Parker’s Barber Shop on Saturdays.
“As he became more prominent, people would come down to the barbershop to hear him, and the place would be packed,” Andre recalls. King had bodyguards by this time, and when he came to the Bustamantes’, “you’d always see two white guys parked in a car” near the house, who everyone assumed to be FBI agents, Andre says.
When King would visit Cleveland, remembers the elder Bustamante, “the very day he arrived there would be three men working on the telephone pole outside. They were setting up listening devices. The FBI always knew where he was.”
After John Bustamante purchased neighboring farms an hour’s drive from Cleveland, he built a house in the woods that became the Camp David for King and his associates, including Jackson, when they convened outside Atlanta.
The day King was shot, “my dad was sobbing,” Andre says. “It was one of two times in my life I saw him cry; the other was the day my younger brother died.”
“The guy was so vibrant and joyful and full of life, to end his life that way is really sad,” John Bustamante says. In keeping with the family tradition, his granddaughter is hoping to attend BU — on a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholarship.