January 15th is Martin Luther King Day! Thinking about the heroic civil rights leader, we at PugetPets wondered if he had any pets or notable connections to animals. We didn’t learn of any King family pets, but what we turned up was a touching and timeless photo that speaks volumes about both MLK and America’s “best friends.” When we think of dogs in connection with the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and ’70’s, we most often reference the shocking and now-iconic photos of police dogs ordered to attack peaceful protesters and onlookers. But one photo stands in surprising contrast to these.
On June 13, 1964, the Florida St. Petersburg Times published a front-page story under the headline “St. Augustine Negros, Klan March Peacefully,” written by staff writer Martin Waldron. The article was accompanied by a photograph taken by staff photographer Bob Moreland. Dr. King had been arrested in St. Augustine two days earlier during a non-violent sit-in at the Monson Motel restaurant. The article reports that following death threats and under the cover of night, King was transported from St. Johns County Jail in St. Augustine to Duval County jail in Jacksonville, and that he arrived in a police car with six officers and a police dog. You can see the original article and photograph here.
Given the history of police dogs with civil rights protesters, it is most likely that the dog was put in the car with King either to humiliate or to intimidate him. But the photo shows a different outcome. In it, we see a composed Dr. King in the back seat of the squad car, with the police K-9 in question clearly making an effort to befriend him! The dog’s body language is undeniable, and in the photo we also see Dr. King cracking a smile in the midst of this highly tense situation. The photo is a little time-capsule of a single fleeting moment, of no great historical consequence on its own, yet it makes the imagination soar, as our minds attempt to fill in the blanks. Did MLK reach over and give his “guard” a scratch? What might he have said? “Good boy!” “Hey, there, Buddy.” “Did they wake you up for this, too?” Most of all, the photo represents, in its own small way, the spirit of MLK and the movement he lead: love and peace conquering in the midst of hate and strife.
The photo of MLK and the police dog reminds us of the power of love. And it reminds us of the power of dogs, who with a movement of their ears, a look in their eyes and a wag of their tails can instantly soften us, lift our stress, lower our blood pressure and make us smile, even in the worst of times. And while dogs aren’t technically “color-blind” as was once thought, they do look out on the world without the prejudices, the social and political agendas, and the uniquely human fears that so often inform our interactions with one another. They do, in fact, have much to teach us.