Dr. King at Plymouth

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mlkI 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.

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Selma – The Movie

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selmaTo be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the film. Did I really want to be reminded of the awful things that happened during the 1960s? Did I want to relive the murder of Unitarian minister, The Rev. James Reeb? Or the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a peace activist, I believe, from Detroit.

Then, how could the British actor David Oyelowo possibly create a credible Martin Luther King Jr.?

I’m glad we took in the film. We caught the early afternoon showing. As uncomfortable as it sometimes made me feel, “Selma” nicely summed up what the story was about. It captured the marchers’ resolute courage. It portrayed the ugliness of the white citizens. I guess I didn’t need to be reminded of police officials such as Jim Clark and “Bull” Conner. But they were part of the story, too.

Such men embodied the deep hatred that I’ve always associated with racism and slavery’s ugly legacy.

I have no earthly reason to associate that small Alabama city with any important national event other than to summon up one of the seminal events of the civil rights era, indeed of American history

It was the mid-1960s. I was a graduate student in Cincinnati. During the day I either sat in some graduate seminar or was working on my divinity thesis. Evenings found me typing freight bills at Duff Truck Lines. Nobody I associated with in those days followed the civil rights movement more closely.

Even before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I was a huge fan of Dr. King. I found Oyelowo’s portrayal solid, credible. This King was reticent, not a bit boastful. Rather, given what he faced, he was full of self-doubt. Here also was the King I recall. Yes, he was a simple man. But wasn’t he eloquent in the pulpit! In private, the film shows a reflective man, not given to hasty reactions. This King made me think he had been given a holy mission. It was to win the right of black citizens in the South to vote.

For me, the actor’s cadence and reserved demeanor resonated. I could hear easily the impassioned voice of Dr. King 50 years ago.

The times depicted in “Selma” were such brutal times. You might find it hard to believe that somebody would plant a bomb at a church. That bomb killed four black girls. We saw them in the film all dressed up, chattering away, heading for Sunday School class, then the blast. But added to this crime, it was the televised beatings of marchers headed from Selma to Montgomery that stirred the national conscience.

“Selma” reminds us of key historical players throughout the drama. That included some of my favorites, such as James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young and John Lewis, later the eloquent congressman. Malcolm X even makes an appearance. For years I felt I personally knew them all.

Much has been written about how the film portrays Lyndon Johnson. I thought the actor Tom Wilkinson did a nice job of capturing LBJ’s blunt, even profane talk and overpowering personality. In the Oval Office, the actor playing Gov. George Wallace seemed to grow smaller as the talk with the president went on.

LBJ former aides and historians have objected that the film fails to credit the president with taking more of a lead on the Voting Rights bill. Here, we see Dr. King applying the pressure and winning LBJ’s acquiescence.

Director Ava DuVenay objects that she and her colleagues didn’t set about to recreate a history of this momentous era. That’s a fair defense. “Selma” isn’t a documentary. Yet I fail to see how getting LBJ’s role historically more accurate would have diminished the drama.

What is indisputably true about the film is how it tells the story of a defining moment in our history. The discrimination was real. The racism was real. The brutality was real. Also real was the courage of the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. And also real was the central role in this historic drama of an eloquent young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.

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