The Watches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cleveland, Ohio: Reverend Martin Luther King addressed a cheering crowd of 2,000
 Getty Images

There’s a great deal known about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—about his life; about how he championed, advanced, and fought for the cause of Civil Rights in the United States; and about his untimely death. Not very much, however, is known about the watch he wore during some of his most private moments: a time-only Timex on a simple leather strap.

That’s because he was most often photographed wearing an 18k gold Rolex Datejust—a timepiece that has its own muddy provenance. In some places, you’ll read that it was a gift from Rolex itself; in others, there are claims that it was a present from a fellow member of the Civil Rights movement whose aim was to help the most powerful men in the world identify with King; to find easy, ice-breaking common ground in an appreciation of something built to stand the test time of time. King was photographed wearing it everywhere from the March Against Fear in June of 1966, to rallies in Cleveland, Chicago, and beyond. He eventually became so well-associated with it that in 2013, the company included him in an ad campaign alongside other notable Rolex owners.

The Timex was seen far less often, but that’s not because King liked it any less. “It just has amazing stories,” said writer Matt Hranek, who learned more about the Timex while researching his best-selling 2017 book A Man and His Watch. “This is the watch that he wore through his most intense negotiations and his deepest fights for civil rights. There was a quote from [his wife, Coretta Scott King] saying how he watched the seconds tick on that watch. And that’s powerful.” Ultimately, it couldn’t be included in Hranek’s book, but it has been spotted publicly in recent years. In 2014, Coretta loaned it to an exhibition in Atlanta, along with his glasses and a transistor radio he carried to stay on top of the news.

While what Dr. King said and did was far more important than what he wore, his love of watches underscores his deep thinking about time. The concept comes up in speech after powerful speech: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” he said in one. “The time is always right to do the right thing,” he said in another. And it’s not hard to imagine him taking a break from a sermon, looking down at one of his watches, and being spurred on by the notion that the small machine on his wrist—like the movement he loved so much—kept moving forward.