The Scent of Martin Luther King Jr. Day {Perfume History & Facts}


Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in 1964. Source: Wikipedia

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018, I wondered what cologne Dr. King might have worn on a habitual basis because it's topical for a perfume blog to inquire into such things. I was looking for information about his tastes and grooming habits - perhaps his personality too.

Little did I know that on the very day of his assassination and in the moments preceding his death on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis - and by all accounts having recorded these details rather precisely - there was a story to be told of his last moments, which were entwined with the scent of a cologne - his but also that of his friend Ralph Abernathy's who was sharing the motel room with him...

This story is about both scent and timing.

King had had trouble getting up from bed on that morning partly because his brother had come to visit the day before; they and other friends had chatted the night away, even got into a pillow fight, and finally repaired to their beds only at dawn. Abernathy tried to wake him up, with difficulty. King apparently had looked depressed and anxious, others say grim and businesslike, evaluating a host of worst-case scenarios for their civil rights agenda in support of the garbage collectors' strike. After Abernathy told him in jest "you know, we can't win this non-violent revolution in bed," King finally got up and shaved.

magic-shaving-powder.jpg King used the product colloquially called "Magic Shave" which used to be popular - still sold today - among African-American men. Its smell is reportedly spectacularly bad to those who use it and people can detect it from ten yards away, apparently. The smell has not been improved since the 1960s, although a so-called "fragrant" version exists.

The stench is real. It is still today compared to that of rotten eggs, even calling the unceremonious comparison "an understatement" on the Badger & Blade forum. If you didn't fancy cologne, you probably would have needed some to cover up the foul smell of what is technically a depilatory cream once misted, rather than a shaving / cream powder per se. No razor blades needed, just a plastic credit card, most of the time, to scrape everything away.


The advert for Aramis cologne in 1977 offers the tag line "The Authority of Aramis"

After King had finished "shaving", he splashed on some of his signature scent, Aramis cologne and aftershave, a men's cologne at the height of popularity in the 1960s-1970s. It is still produced today by Estée Lauder cos. It's considered a classic. It was created in 1964 by French perfumer Bernard Chant (Aromatics Elixir) as a leather chypre. Named after a Turkish aphrodisiacal root, but also one of Alexandre Dumas' three (actually four) musketeers, Aramis - the most refined one in the group - it is noted as the first prestige men's fragrance to have been sold in department stores in the US.

Estée Lauder reminds you also that "Aramis pioneered the men's grooming market with its master plan of 20 products." It was therefore about masculine elegance with a newly extended democratic outreach.

Writer Alexandre Dumas, it must be noted, had African ancestry by way of Haïti, his grand-mother Marie-Cessette Dumas being a freed slave. This might have played into Dr. King's choice of a cologne as Dumas' African ancestry is better publicized among African-Americans than in old-school French history and literature books. But, we don't know for sure. What we know is that Aramis was as ubiquitous as Jovan Musk in the same glorious decades, which is to say, a lot. Perhaps it was more simply that Dr. King was not a snob, if that ever needed clarifying. He went for an everyman's scent - but not Hai Karate or Dana Sterling Silver, nor Brut or even Old Spice - and shared it with friends - a concept, which by the way, is popular in a country like Turkey, in contrast with more individualistic societies where perfume is seen as the special mark of an individual, even though the product is industrial. Even simpler, he maybe just liked the scent.

The personality of the scent is considered particularly masculine, with a classical bent. Notes for the aftershave are: artemisia, juniper, cumin, clove, leather, lavender, carnation, geranium, jasmine, woods. There is a naturalistic "body odor" note, thanks to cumin.

On that day, Dr. Ralph Abernathy decided to linger in room 306 saying he wanted to splash on some of Dr. King's after-shave lotion on his hands before exiting the place, which should have been done together but for it becoming an after-thought on that day. They had come to support a demonstration by sanitation workers. It was not the first time they had rented a room in the motel, which was their go-to address when in Memphis. Later, it would become a brothel at some point in the 1980s before now being the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. In it, Dr. King's cologne has become a museum artifact.

King answered "OK" and that he would wait outside on the balcony before the room's entrance door. At one point, he bent over the balcony railing, asking musician Ben Branch to make sure his favorite song "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" would be played later that day.

The tragic events of the day unfolded. Dr. King was shot and pronounced dead an hour later.

In retrospect, it sounds as if, had that Aramis cologne not been used, and "in the way" of the flow of the day, things might have taken a different turn. But the fact is that in the lapse of time which preceded the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., both he and Abernathy were simply occupied with daily grooming and chatting about soul food - could a young woman of 31 cook soul food? - being a subject up for debate, and for King, smoking what would turn out to be his last cigarette.

Dr. King for a short yet sufficient amount of time came to stand alone on the entryway balcony as a clearly delineated and relatively immobile target.

Reports say that after he had fallen, his hand still held a crushed Salem Menthol cigarette, which he had gone outside to smoke while waiting for Abernathy.


Witnesses point in the direction of where the shots originated while Dr. King lies slain on the floor of the Lorraine Motel balcony on April 4, 1968

Those were the smells that surrounded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day of his death. It is a tragedy that a perfume, so pleasant, so attractive, shared by two friends, facilitated in unseen ways a killer's murder of one man, if not of two. It was a fatal coincidence. The murder itself was not.

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