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"Make it a like a butterfly..." The Man Behind Dr. King's Mustache

Barber Nelson Malden at work in his shop in Montgomery

This Wednesday marks fifty years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. All month long, the APR news team is examining Dr. King’s work in Alabama and his impact here. The civil rights leader inspired his supporters with the Montgomery bus boycott, his letter from the Birmingham Jail, and by leading voting rights marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. APR’s Pat Duggins reports on one witness to Dr. King’s earliest work in the civil rights movement, and the place where the two men met...

There are people whose work in the civil rights movement began at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. For example, the Reverend Jesse Jackson visited the campus of the University of Alabama to speak to a student group. He was a member of King’s staff when the civil rights leader was assassinated fifty years ago.

Others got to know King in their own way…

“He was more concerned about his mustache than his haircut. He always liked his mustache to be up off the lip, like a butterfly. He would tell me, make it like a butterfly this time,” says Nelson Malden. He's eighty four years old, retired, and still lives in Montgomery. Malden made his living as a barber since he was fourteen. He sold the barber shop he and his brother ran years ago. But, that doesn’t keep him dropping by, and picking up a trimmer when he’s needed.

Malden recalls one day back in 1953, when a new customer walked in…

“When I finished cutting his hair, I gave him the mirror, and asked if he liked his haircut," he recalls. "And he told me ‘pretty good.’ And when you tell a barber ‘pretty good,’ that was an insult.”

That new customer was Martin Luther King, Junior.

“When I first started cutting his hair, I had no idea that I be cutting one of the more historical persons of the twenty century," says Malden.

King became a regular in Malden’s barber chair in 1953. Within two years, he was making waves in the civil rights movement, Dr. King helped organized the Montgomery Bus boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks. She was jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white man.

“Oh yeah you could tell…" recalls Malden of the boycott. "Cause the first day the boycott started, we was in the barber shop, and one of the customers said ‘here come the bus.’”

Nelson Malden and his customers got a front row seat to a moment in civil rights history…

“And, we all ran to window, to see… there was a black man standing on the corner, across the street from the barber shop," he says. "All the customers jumped out of the chairs, and the barbers stopped cutting, and we all ran to the window to see whether the black man was going to get on the bus. We could see the bus pull up, the man was still standing there. And we all said ‘oh, lordy, we thought Joe Lewis knocked out Max Schmelling!”

Having a nationally known civil rights leader for a customer did include the occasional drawback. King was also head pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Malden worshipped. Malden says one night he and his boss at that time really wanted the fried chicken from a certain restaurant, so they ordered takeout from the side door. Blacks weren’t allowed in the front door.

“So, this particular Friday night we was standing on the sidewalk," recalled Malden. "And I looked up the street and I said 'hey, Warren, I said that looks like Reverend King’s car coming. And he said ‘sure, is.”’

That presented a problem because of a message King had just delivered from the pulpit at Dexter… “We should stop going to the backdoors of these white restaurants. He said you dehumanize yourself for doing that," says Malden. "He caught us at this white restaurant, going to the side door. We couldn’t go in the front door” Malden’s boss had just ordered, which left him with a tough decision to make… “He had to make up his mind on the split second on whether he’s going to go back and get the chicken and whether he was going to be embarrassed. So, he went back and got the chicken."

King watched the whole episode play out, and then slowly drove off. Malden says the next time King came in for a haircut, it was a little tense…

“So, when he got in the chair, and he said “how was the chicken?” I said ‘how did you know that was chicken?” He said ‘some of my members gave me some one time, and it sure was good.’ I said you better stop eating that white folk food, it’s gonna make you sick, He said ‘I see you pretty healthy.”

For close to a decade, King would be a regular at Malden’s shop and not just for a haircut. The civil rights icon would just sit off to the side by himself, to read or work on his latest speech or sermon. Scribbled thoughts that King didn’t like were wadded up and tossed into a nearby trash can. One of Malden’s big regrets is that he didn’t keep any of those notes…

“If I had sense enough at that time, knowing he would be that famous—If I kept some of them notes, I probably me able to buy me a Porsche," says Malden. Even after King left Montgomery in 1960, he would drop by for an occasional trim. His last haircut with Malden was a few months before his trip to Memphis on April 4, 1968… The news broke while Malden was giving Richmond Smiley a haircut. He was a deacon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, just a few blocks from the barber shop…

“I was cutting Richmond Smiley hair. And that afternoon, the telephone rang and Richmond’s wife asked is Richmond there? I told her he’s in the chair. So, tell him Reverend King’s been killed. And he leaned forward and about fell out of the chair. I grabbed his head and out a cold towel to it, and brought him back until he calmed down.”

Pictures of famous African Americans still hang on the wall of Malden Brothers Barber Shop. Malden says King’s assassination came as no surprise… “The last sermon he preached at Memphis, about he had been to the mountain top and looked over, so it didn’t shock me all that much that he had been killed… A picture of King remains on Malden’s barber shop wall, where he relied on one man to get his mustache just right.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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