I picked up my daughter Robyn at her apartment and then headed for Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Fort Wayne.
The event was the annual memorial service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I believe I’ve only missed one of these services. That was the year my wife Toni and I lived in Washington, D.C. when she was a program officer for the National Science Foundation.
So that must be about 20 such services I’ve attended through the years. I’m always inspired by the music, often even the preacher. Black or white, you could tell the speaker had put a lot of preparation into the sermon.
One year, Dick Hamm, a Disciples minister, longtime friend, brought the packed audience to its feet. I also recall the Rev. Jesse White, a black minister, who stirred people in like fashion.
Yesterday afternoon, the organizers departed from the usual program. Instead of one often eloquent sermon, the Rev. Bill McGill, himself a gifted black preacher, delivered Dr. King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop…” sermon.
I thought the change made a lot of sense. I’m not sure I got to thank the Rev. John Gardner, Plymouth’s senior minister, for whatever role he played in the change. I didn’t miss the usual sermon.
Robyn and I sat toward the front on the right side of this great sanctuary. My old friend Bill’s reading was so powerful I just closed my eyes and could hear Dr. King speaking to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
Other clergy offered readings suited to the occasion. I was especially moved by one black female minister who occasionally speaks at Plymouth. Truly a gifted person.
The Heartland Chamber chorale provided special music. I didn’t recognize the spirituals, which is unusual. A young woman and a young man offered solos, backed up by the chorale. We all joined in to sing what’s known as the Negro National Anthem – “Lift every voice…”
At the end, we joined hands to sang “We shall overcome…” What else?
During the reception, I visited with a few old friends, people I nearly always see at the King event. I did greet a couple of folk from our Unitarian church. Seeing friends, no matter how I know them, is one of the things that makes the annual visit to Plymouth a highlight of my year.
Today is the official King holiday. What memories the occasion brings back for me. At the paper over more than a quarter century, I wrote scores of editorials calling on the school district to desegregate its elementary schools.
I cheered on the civil rights crusades, whether for voting rights, fair housing, the King holiday and equal employment opportunities. The country indeed has seen great progress. Who would ever have dreamed during the years Dr. King led the movement that we’d elect a black president? Twice?
We’re not there yet, judging people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, as King used to put it.
I feel proud to have played a minor role in crusading for civil rights in our community. I’m sure I’m not the only person who attended the service Sunday who resolved to do more this year on behalf of civil rights.
As much as I love this annual service, these events aren’t the most important legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His most important legacy comes when we see real changes in our communities. Yes, we shall overcome someday. It can’t come soon enough.