Fades and Fellowship With Martin Luther King Jr.’s Barber

No black man wants to be on the receiving end of jokes about not having a good shape up.

Mens hairstyles from the fade, to the Afro, to the Philly, the conk, the Mohawk, cornrows, short dreads, long dreads, designs and parts, curls to the cruddy have been as essential to their identity as it has for the countless styles black women have created and had appropriated for years.

When Dr. LaMarr Darnell Shields, known around Baltimore for his advocacy for black male youth, approached Darius Wilmore, artist and co-founder of Taharka Bros. Ice Cream, about doing a creative project around barbershops giving barbers voices equally in their contribution to civil rights struggles and their ability to build safe havens for community concerns and comedy jone sessions Wilmore couldnt resist the challenge.

LaMarr had the idea, Wilmore explains after their play, Fades and Fellowship debuted at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. He asked me, What do you think about barbers doing like a TED talk?

What came out of that discussion was a production that was less of a traditional play with ongoing dialogue, and more cinema verite on stage. The barbershop was the backdrop for a performance that blended the storytelling, music, and real life conversations that happen there.

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Ten barbers from around Baltimore gave their viewpoints in vignettes and anecdotes on issues ranging from homophobia to economics to police brutality. Actors came in periodically to sell wares or play chess as part of the community that gathers for communal fellowship.

The barbershop is a place where a factory worker can be a philosopher and a postal worker can be a politician, Quincy Mills, the author of Cutting Along the Color Line, told journalist Tour during a video snippet that was aired during the prformance. Barbershops in the 19th century were spaces where African American men could sit and talk and organize.

The barbers, the customers, and then the folks that are just waiting, all get into the conversation. Barbers talked candidly about being able to openly contribute to civil rights because they were not open to white employers or customers, Mills said about the period of segregation where black barbers could be employed to cut white patrons hair, but werent allowed to get their hair cut in the shop and opened their own shops. The irony is that most African Americans didnt want to get their hair cut in white barbershops, but they didnt want to be told where they couldnt get a haircut.

The special surprise guest that walked onstage to close the Fades and Fellowship performance was Nelson Malden, the personal barber to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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(Photo Credit: salon.com)

The Shadow League sat down with Malden to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of cutting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s hair.


The Shadow League:  How did you get into cutting hair?

Nelson Malden: My father was a barber in Pensacola, Florida. I learned directly from him. I came from a family of seven boys and I was the youngest.

TSL: What did the barbershop mean to your family?

NM: It was a major support. The only income in my family came from my father cutting hair. He was very fortunate to work in a shop. Then later on he built his own barbershop.

I came to Montgomery, Alabama in 1952 to attend Alabama State College. There wasnt a black college in Pensacola. I had started working in a barbershop one block from Alabama State campus. The styles then were the high English, low English, and the Bon-Tom, which was like a fade.

TSL: How have the styles changed?

NM: Really its just the names that changed. Latest thing now is the fade. The Bon-Tom, low and high, the designs in the hair. The part, sometimes on the side, sometimes down the center.

TSL: What about the Afro?

NM: That was a fad at the time, but it didnt last that long. We lost a lot of money when the Afro came out, cause the customer normally would come in every two weeks maximum time.

When the Afro came out it was every six months. The longer length they wore it the more militant they looked, so they really wanted to look militant.

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TSL: When did you meet Martin Luther King, Jr.?

NM: I met him in 1954. I gave him his first Montgomery haircut. The morning I cut his hair for the first time I had a 10 oclock class and it was 9:30 when I saw this blue Pontiac pull up in front of the barbershop.

When he got out the car I looked at his head cause it was a question of time, whether I had enough time to cut it before my class. I looked at his head and said I can knock him out in 15 minutes.

When he came in the shop I said, Where you from? He said, Atlanta, Georgia. I said, What are you doing in town? He said, I gotta preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I said, Thats my church.

After I cut his hair I gave him the mirror so he could look at it.

I said, How you like this haircut? He said, Pretty good.

You tell a barber pretty good that was an insult, but he came back two weeks later and I was busy. Another barber was vacant, but he waited on me. I said, It must have been a pretty good haircut. He said, You alright. So we never did get along too well. [laughs].

TSL: What was your first impression of him?

NM: First impression? I thought I was the hottest thing in Montgomery. I was young, cutting at the leading barber shop. Cutting all of the preachers hair. All of the big dawgs. All the big time reverends. They were the celebrities of Montgomery. Deans and presidents of Alabama State. So this preacher [MLK] comes and he tells me that my haircut is very good. I said, Who does he think he is?! You talking to Nelson Malden. You talking to the sugar daddy!

I noticed he never gave me a tip. Thats 25 or 50 cents at the time. I said, Reverend when you finish preaching a sermon on Sunday and the members tell you it was a good sermon, dont that make you feel good? You go to a restaurant and you got a nice meal and the waitress give you good service, you give a tip. Dont that make you feel good?

Yes, he answered.

He asked me about donating to the church. I said, Im a student in college I cant afford to put 10 percent of my earnings in church. He said, I cant afford to tip you either.

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TSL: This was before he was the world famous MLK?

NM: Yeah, he didnt get famous until he was in Montgomery. He was just an ordinary preacher at a local church. He didnt get famous until after Dec. 5th. Thats the day the boycott started in 1955.

But what had happened was he had been elected to be the first president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. He had to give his acceptance speech at Hope Street Church. Most people didnt know about him except for the people in his congregation.

At this meeting all the churches were represented for the mass meeting for the bus boycott. After he finished his sermon, thats when one old lady said, Oh lord you done sent us a savior. He had about 5,000 people on the outside of the church. She could tell by his speech he was gonna be the man.

TSL: When he was in your chair, a lot of times the relationship between a barber and a customer is almost like a therapist. What do you remember about his personality, was he trash talker?

NM: There was a very good friend he met in the barbershop, a local boy named Gilbert Klein. He was one of the busboys at the hotel. King would tell religious jokes and Klein would tell sexy jokes.

Gilbert would say, “You got one for me today Rev?” Rev would say, “I got one for you, you got one for me?”

Gilbert Klein said, Rev you ever heard the joke about the Rabbi, the Catholic priest and the Baptist minister?

No, I never heard that, Rev answered.

This man was getting ready to go to service and he called his son. He said, son, come here. I want you to take care of things while Daddy is gone. When the Rabbi come by here, I want you to hide Daddys money. The Catholic priest come by here, I want you to hide Daddys whiskey. If the Baptist preacher come here, I want you to sit in your mommas lap!

Gilbert said, Rev you not like that are you? Rev said, I am a Baptist minister.

Everybody fell out laughing.

He was just 27 years old when he first came to Montgomery. He lived a half a block from the barbershop. He was still going back and forth to Boston Theological Seminary.

After he got famous, he had the press following him, he brought a lot of celebrities to the barbershop, Benjamin Mays, Jesse Jackson. All of the leaders of the civil rights movement lived within a five block radius of the barbershop.

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TSL: What do you remember about the boycott?

NM: The first day of the boycott, we was wondering if the boycott would be successful. We saw this black man standing across from the barbershop at the bus stop.

One of the customers jumped up and said, “Here come the bus, here come the bus!” We had no idea whether black people would stay off the bus. When the bus pulled off, the black man was still standing there. Everybody was screaming, we didnt think it was going to really work. That was the next morning after the boycott started.

Montgomery was totally segregated. What made the buses so unique you had a black water fountain and a white water fountain, thats clear cut but on the bus, it was a strange arrangement. We stayed together for 381 days and off those buses, every black person who had been humiliated at some point. It was the spirit of the people that made it so successful.

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