What Dr. Tolokun Omokunde thought would be an ordinary school day in November 1962 became anything but that for the unsuspecting 15 year old. Outfitted that morning in a brand-new blue suit, Buster Brown loafers (with the logo including the dog on the insole, he emphasizes) and freshly starched and ironed underwear courtesy of his grandmother, he knew something was different. Never before had anyone taken such meticulous precaution with his ensemble.

With his necktie tied in a Windsor knot exactly as his uncle taught him, Mrs. Esmeralda Hawkins met him outside the door to the Booker T. Washington High School Library. She said to him, “When you shall have finished this experience, you will be better for it.”

There, inside the library, sat Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., drinking a cup of coffee. While his family obviously understood the significance of this day, “I didn’t know the magnitude. It was a complete shock to me,” Dr. Omokunde recalled. “When I walked in, they asked me if I wanted a Coca-Cola. I got the bottle, and it was already cold.”

During a recent meeting of Coca-Cola employees from all over the world, each attendee was asked if they could share a Coke with anyone in the world (living or dead), who would it be? Among the most popular responses were Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill... and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Tolokun Omokunde – now a minister in Oxford, N.C., recently shared with me the story of his Coca-Cola moment with Dr. King.

In this library, Tolokun Omokunde met Dr. King. The faculty at B

In this library, Tolokun Omokunde met Dr. King. The faculty at Booker T. Washington High School went beyond the call of duty to invest in students.

Booker T. Washington High School (African American), 1959: Scan 1, in the Charles S. Killebrew Photographic Collection (P0091), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Order of the Day

“Segregation was the order of the day,” Dr. Omokunde explained when asked to describe the climate of his home city of Rocky Mount, N.C. in the early 1960s. He attended the all-black Booker T. Washington High School, where a punishment eventually turned into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Dr. King.

Singled out as somewhat of a “rebel”, Omokunde’s world history teacher, Mrs. Hawkins, saw potential in him and wanted him to stay after school for tutoring. In response to the request, he stomped his foot on the ground and exclaimed “Shoot!” (which “might as well have been a curse word,” he said).

Upon arriving home that day, he learned that Mrs. Hawkins had already told his grandmother what he'd done.

“My grandmother in turn sent me to (Mrs. Hawkins') house to rake her leaves and to beg her pardon," he said. However, more like a sympathetic aunt than a teacher imposing a sentence on an unruly student, she snuck him some pocket change, ginger cookies... and Coca-Cola.

“She taught me world history to the point where I had one of the highest averages in world history in the whole school system,” Dr. Omokunde said. “She said education would get me through anything – even Jim Crow. And she was right. Mrs. Hawkins did a lot for students – teaching you that you were just as good as anybody else – as did most of my teachers.”

There was indeed something special about the staff at Booker T. Washington High School, which created a legacy. In the 1940s, the school was one of the most distinguished black high schools in the United States according to the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes, the organization responsible for coordinating the regional inspection and rating of African American colleges and secondary schools in the United States.

More than teachers, they were nurturers who believed in the power of education and invested heavily in their students.

“We had teachers who cared so much about us”, Dr. Omokunde said. “They visited our houses. We went to the same churches. I would go home and the teachers would be sitting at the kitchen table – eating up my peach cobbler!”

Armstrong Connection/Influence

“The people who were teaching us were people who had master’s degrees and should have been teaching in college!”, said fellow Washington High School graduate, Brenda Armstrong, Professor of Pediatrics and Pediatric Cardiology, Associate Dean of Medical Education and Dean of Admissions at at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Armstrong’s uncle was Washington High Principal, and her mother – a graduate of Shaw University with a master’s degree from Columbia University – taught English at Washington, even on the weekends. Unauthorized to teach advanced courses of study Monday through Friday, she developed a unique Saturday curriculum for her students, which included her daughter and Dr. Omokunde.

This intense rearing obviously paid off for Dr. Omokunde, who earned a Doctor of Ministry Degree, and Armstrong, who is distinguished as the second black woman in the United States to become a board certified pediatric cardiologist.

“She endeared herself to all of her students,” Armstrong, a member of one of one of the first classes at Duke University to include African-American students, said of her mother. “She believed that we had to be that first generation out of segregation into integration.”

The education also paid off in the most special of ways for Dr. Omokunde. By winning a world history contest, he was granted the chance to meet Dr. King when he came to Washington High to meet with the Rocky Mount Voters and Improvement League.

Coca-Cola Moments

“There he sat waiting for us to come in and talk to him,” said Omokunde, recalling the moment he stood – Coke in hand – to meet Dr. King.

He decided to pass on the straw and the napkin offered (that was reserved for girls), and this Coca-Cola occasion was effectively the polar opposite of his routine Coca-Cola moments as a teenager, when he considered the beverage “fuel” for the belching contests he participated in with his friends.

Omokunde remembers trading six Coca-Cola bottle caps for admissi

Omokunde remembers trading six Coca-Cola bottle caps for admission to feature films at Booker T Theater in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Booker T Theater, in the Charles S. Killebrew Photographic Collection (P0091), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“How did I go to the movie theater? I took six Coca-Cola bottle tops,” he explained. He got together with his friends on Saturdays to see features such as The Three Stooges and Flash Gordon at the Booker T. Theater in Rocky Mount. Six Coca-Cola bottle caps would grant free admission.

This occasion was also unlike his grandmother’s “Spring Cleanings," when she would annually sneak a dose of castor oil in a serving of cherry Coke (Coca-Cola with a shot of cherry at the time) in an attempt to “clean out” his body.

“It would be cherry Coke for the first half, but then it would be castor oil on the bottom half,” he said. She knew that the only way for him to receive her remedy was to slip it in his much-loved cherry Coke, “before I got hip to it”.

Less Than One Year Before the March on Washington

Coke in hand, “I immediately began to question him about civil disobedience and Mahatma Gandhi," Omokunde said. As they discussed nonviolence and world history, he was struck with how Dr. King listened intently and cared about what Omokunde had to say, even though he was one of the youngest of the small group of people in the roughly hourlong meeting.

Almost nine months to the day before the March on Washington, Brenda Armstrong’s dad, Dr. Wiley Armstrong, an active member of the Rocky Mount civil rights movement, invited her to the same meeting. “All daddy said was, ‘I’ve got a meeting to go to, I want you to come with me," Armstrong recollected. “I want you to sit and listen.”

Armstrong remembers Dr. King urging perseverance and assuring the group that the mission would not be easy. She also recalled him discussing the March on Washington.

“I remember him saying something about the March,” and that he was going to give a speech that was somewhat of a “trial speech,” she said. “I was just in awe sitting there.”

In the Booker T. Washington gymnasium, 2,000 people crowded in to hear Dr. King. Brenda’s dad found the tallest person he could and requested them to allow his then 13-year-old daughter to sit on their shoulders so she could see Dr. King. Perched on a stranger’s soldiers, this “transformative moment” has been singed into her memory.

Upon returning home that night, Armstrong vowed to her mother, “I’m never going to wash my hand again” after meeting Dr. King and shaking his hand. My dad said, “This is history,” she shared.

Dr. Omokunde recalls coming out of the speech “floating” – not only because he was uplifted by the words – but he also discovered a new purpose in life. “When I came out of there I followed Martin Luther King forever. Because of that experience I had a new take on Civil Rights.” He still carries that on today as pastor of Timothy Darling Presbyterian USA Church and Granville County Sherriff's Office Chaplain in Oxford, N.C. 

Listen to the story of how North Carolina State University Professor Jason Miller unearthed an audio recording of Dr. King’s Rocky Mount speech here and learn more about his feature length documentary film, Origin of the Dream, here.