Much of the nation today gathers to hear precocious prepubescents recite Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – while making sure none of his mercenary offspring are lurking about demanding royalties – but one man is sitting out the birthday celebration.
This man, alone, is embittered and unswayed in his belief that it was he, not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who deserved a holiday.
“And I would have had one, too – if I’d been able to give my speech,” the Rev. Dr. Fontaine Aloysius Pettigrew IV and three-quarters insisted while stocking canned peaches at the Hoggly Woggly grocery store in his South Carolina hometown.
Ever wondered who was the unfortunate dude slated to follow Dr. King’s world-altering speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963?
Although his name has been lost to history, Pettigrew IV and three-quarters insisted that he was the one waiting in the wings to enthrall the masses and the nation when King took off on his historic, mostly unscripted and totally unparalleled flight of oratory.
“We flipped a coin and I won. I was supposed to close the march, but once Dr. King got wound up, you could forget about it,” Pettigrew said as he unloaded another pallet of canned peaches. “Man, I’d worked on that speech for two weeks, and it wasn’t about no dream, either.”
Do you remember what it was about? I asked.
“Kumquats,” he said.
Yep. They’re nature’s perfect food, he said. “Look at me. I’m 75 and can stock these shelves quicker than any of these young whippersnappers.
“Know how I’m able to do that?”
“Kumquats,” Pettigrew affirmed. “But I got hung up trying to find a word to rhyme with it.”
Thus, Pettigrew maintained, Dr. King went before he did, exceeded his allotted time and deprived him of the chance to tell 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial and millions watching on TV of his prescription for good health and racial harmony.
Now, there is no historical evidence to back up Pettigrew’s story – or to even confirm that he actually exists: for the record, in case you haven’t figured it out by now – he doesn’t.
“King was fixing to wrap it up – I had a copy of his prepared remarks so I’d know when to come onstage,” Pettigrew said. “Let me tell ya’. There wasn’t nothing about no dream in his original speech. If you listen to it reeeeal close, you can hear Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer, in the background going, ‘Tell ’em about your dream, Martin. Tell ’em about your dream.’
“If you look and listen even closer, you can see me offstage pointing at my Timex and whispering loudly ‘Shut up, Mahalia. It’s my turn.’”
Pettigrew said that after King had finished, he did get to the microphone. “But some joker had unplugged it,” he said. “I had practiced that speech, though, and I was determined to give it. I was like ‘Helllloooo. All the way in the back – can y’all hear me? Say, is this thing on? I had a dream, too. It was about kumquats.’ But nobody was listening.”
About that time, he said, a couple of park rangers came and escorted him to a room made of rubber – for observation only, he insisted.
Pettigrew also insisted – 300 times during our 10-minute conversation – that he is not bitter that Dr. King gave the speech that has since become the defining opus of the Civil Rights Movement, while he faded into oblivion and lost his life’s savings when he over-estimated a kumquat craze that never materialized.
“I got no complaints,” he said. “Why, I can vote now, and the manager here lets me take home any can of peaches that has a dent in it.” He then looked around, saw no one, and slammed a can to the floor – ensuring that it had a dent.
“Well, well, well. Look who’s coming home with me,” he said before placing the damaged can in a pocket of his apron.