MONTGOMERY, Al.—The Malden Brothers Barber Shop has been in continuous operation since 1958 as part of the historic Centennial Hill neighborhood of Montgomery. The three-chair shop is around the corner from the Ben Moore Hotel, a shuttered four-story landmark where African American civil rights leaders stayed in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Montgomery was seriously segregated and the hotel was a safe haven.
The Rev. Martin Luther King had a lot of work to do in 1954 when he arrived in Montgomery to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He lived with his young wife Coretta Scott and their daughter Yolanda in the parsonage, which is walking distance from the barber shop at 407 S. Jackson St.
In 1955 Montgomery had a population of 120,000. More than 92 per cent of the city’s registered voters were white, according to a modest book “Touched By History” (A Self-Guided Tour to Civil Rights Sites in Central Alabama” I found at the independent NewSouth bookstore.
A couple weeks ago I got my hair cut by Dr. King’s barber (1954-60), Nelson Malden. His other brothers Spurgeon and Stephens are deceased. The trio opened their first store in 1952 in Montgomery before moving to the present location in 1958. I sat in the same chair that Dr. King sat in, the one closest to the window.
It is the chair that is nearest to the light.
I was in Montgomery gathering oral histories for my next book. I called an audible on visiting the barber shop since it was off my project’s subject. We had an appointment in Birmingham. But patience is lost in buzzfeed media. My photographer Paul Natkin suggested that I get a haircut. I didn’t even know if the barber shop owner would be around. When we arrived early on a Thursday morning the black burglar gates in front of the barber shop were open.
If I could get just one good story in spending an hour or so at the shop, it would be worth the time. If not, it would be a cheaper hair cut ($13) than in Chicago.
I wound up with an experience of a lifetime.
“Dr. King and I talked about politics, sex, religion and food,” Malden said while clipping away. “One time we were in here alone and he said, ‘You know what barber? I’ve learned more in this barber shop than I heard in my life.’ He said, ‘Barber shop medicine will get you in the cemetery and barber shop law will get you in prison.”
A few weeks later Rev. King returned. Malden recalled, “I said I remember what you said about barber shop law and barber shop medicine. What about barber shop philosophy? He said, ‘Barber shop philosophy will get you in the crazy house.”
Malden is 80 years old. His young face is chiseled with the promise of a distant force. The barber shop is filled with family pictures, a panoramic black and white 1960 shot of Alabama State students marching to the Montgomery courthouse to integrate lunch counters and books like Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience and other essays.”
Malden started cutting hair in 1952 at Alabama State College (now University) in Montgomery, where he was studying political science. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks also attended the Alabama State laboratory high school.
“And Reverend King used the Alabama State University library to finish his dissertation,” Malden said. Alabama State was founded in 1866 as a private school for African Americans.
In 1967 Malden ran for Democratic Executive Committeeman in Montgomery.
“Three years after the voting rights bill passed,” added Malden, a U.S. Navy vet. “In Alabama, you had the voting rights bill out of Selma, the civil rights bill out of Birmingham and a supreme court decision (that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws enforcing segregated buses were unconstitutional.) Alabama was the one that changed the whole dynamics of the country. But a white boy beat the devil out of me. He said, ‘My great grandfather was a colonel in the Confederate army!’ That was the end of my campaign.”
The Southern confederacy was formed in Montgomery.
The entire barber shop laughed. All his customers were African American men.
The barber shop always was a liberating space.
“Dr. King was a regular customer for six years,” said Malden, working near a cardboard sign that read “The Only Place You’ll Find Better Barbers is in the Next World.” “I did not see the greatness coming. If I did I would have made a lot of pictures. [You can visit the Nelson Malden collection at the Levi Watkins Learning Center Digital Library at Alabama State.] I was a big dog when I was started cutting his hair. I was cutting a lot of big people’s hair. He was just a little dog. It never affected our relationship. I gave him the mirror after his first haircut and asked how he liked it. He told me, ‘Pretty good.’ I said, ‘You tell a barber ‘pretty good’ and that’s kind of an insult. But he came back two weeks later and said, ‘You’re all right’.”
Macon, Ga. native Little Richard lived in the Ben Moore Hotel. He was living in a penthouse suite at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Strip the last time I saw him . “We used to have a shoe shine stand in the corner,” Malden said. “Little Richard spent a lot of time in the barber shop. Little Richard scared away a lot of people. He’d be on the shoeshine stand with a barbershop full of customers and go, ‘Oooh, you’re all so pretty, man!.’ My brother said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t say that in here.’
Malden is a native of Pensacola, Fla. where he began cutting hair in 1944. He came to Montgomery in 1952 to attend Alabama State. He has no idea how many haircuts he has given over the past 60 years. “About five per cent of our customers are white,” he said. “Tourists like yourself.” Malden has met with groups of political science and sociology students from all over the United States. He said Chicago’s De Paul University recently visited the store.
I gave Malden a $7 tip (I’m off a newspaper expense account!) for sharing the stories.
He said the young Rev. King was not that good a tipper. Rev. King was 25 years old in 1954, the first time he came to Malden Brothers.
“I told him, ‘When you go to a restaurant and have a nice meal and the waitress gives you good service you give her a tip. Don’t you think it makes her feel good?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’
He got out of the chair and grabbed my hand and held it real tight. He asked , ‘Do you put 10 per cent of your earnings in church?’ I said, ‘Rev, I’m a student at Alabama State College I cannot afford to put 10 per cent of my earnings in church.’ He said, and maybe he used a touch of profanity, ‘And I’m the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and I cannot afford to tip you either.”
I shook Malden’s hand with a firm grip. This was a moment to hold on to.