Remembering Dr. King

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Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

I confess. I’m a King idolater.

That’s one reason my wife Toni and I joined 150 or so citizens to march from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge downtown to First Presbyterian Church for a service.

The old church’s sanctuary has always made me want to bow my head and be silent. Maybe it’s the mood the blue, red and amber stained glass windows creates.

I wouldn’t miss such a service as the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination approaches. I always meet old friends from our city’s civil rights struggles. Our district councilman, Jeff Paddock, greeted us. As did the county sheriff and police chief.

As we settled into our pews, the senior pastor of First Pres, Jeff Lehn, welcomed everybody.

Then, one of my favorite preachers, The Rev. Bill McGill, read Dr. King’s “I”ve been to the mountaintop” speech. That’s the one he delivered just hours before he was assassinated. I thought to myself this is as good as it gets for a King memorial service.

But then it got even better.

The guest speaker was The Rev. C.T. Vivian of Atlanta. I can’t say I recall the name. But this white-haired gentleman had marched along side Dr. King during the great civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s.

I noticed that he carried a sheet of paper to the pulpit, which was the same pulpit that Dr. King spoke from when he visited Fort Wayne in 1963. But if this sheet of paper was his sermon, he sure didn’t need it. Rev. Vivian looked at the congregation the entire time he spoke, never once glancing at his text. (If that’s what he carried to the pulpit.)

It was the kind of delivery I prefer. Not preachy. It was more of a conversation this elder statesman of the movement was having with his people. He recalled the marches, the abuse by police and some ordinary citizens. He remarked on King’s eloquence. “I never got tired of hearing him, again and again” Vivian said.

Events here and nationwide this season properly commemorate the life and ministry of this extraordinary person. I was in a graduate class at the University of Cincinnati the evening Dr. King was shot. Before the class started, a fellow student, a young woman, made an insensitive, uncaring remark. I turned away in my seat.

We’ve traveled a long road toward racial justice since then. But as Rev. Vivian reminded us in his quietly eloquent manner, we’re not there yet. Dr. King said it in Memphis, “I may not get there with you, but I have seen the promised land…”

Every year, at such memorial services, we get another glimpse. I would’t miss it.

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I remember Dr. King

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kicks off a voter registration drive at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 18, 1965, flanked by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young. File photo by Ed Jones from The Birmingham News. (Ed Jones/The Birmingham News)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kicks off a voter registration drive at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 18, 1965, flanked by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young. File photo by Ed Jones from The Birmingham News. (Ed Jones/The Birmingham News)

You’d think Fort Wayne’s religious community could come together once a year to celebrate the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. We have for many years. This year there were two main services, one sponsored by the Associated Churches, I’m sure the more conservative, and the second the one my granddaughter Tanya and I attended.

Indeed, for a quarter century, we seemed to be all gathering at Plymouth Congregational Church downtown around King’s birthday. I only missed one service, the year my wife Toni and I lived in Washington D.C.

Through most all those years, you’d have to say the service was reasonably interfaith. That is, if you only invite a Unitarian to read Scripture it’s interfaith (That was me one year.)

Some services even featured a pretty progressive preacher, such as the black woman from a UCC church in Michigan and another year, an old friend during school desegregation battles, the Rev. Dr. Dick Hamm of the Disciples of Christ.

I even attended when the preacher seemed to think the service was a come-to-Jesus revival meeting, not so much a commemoration of the life and ministry of Dr. King. Even at that, I just loved singing the old Gospel music, the Heartland Chamber Chorale specials and, during the social hour, visiting with friends. I’m also sure to see so many friends from battles we shared for social justice and peace in our town. I endured the sermons.

I thought the service this year was the best, so focused as it was on remembering King. The readings were his words. My old buddy, a black minister, The Rev. Bill McGill of Imani Baptist Temple, sounded so much like King I teased him during the social hour of being related to the civil rights legend. Our Unitarian Minister, The Rev. Misty-Dawn Shelly, had a part.

This year’s musical highlight was baritone Carver Cossey’s singing, with the chorale, throughout the service. Later, I told Carver that he had such incredible breath control he’d never have to worry about drowning. He just laughed. Then, he explained that he had just learned not to rush the music.

I’m sure the Associated Churches’ service at an inner city church featured singing and maybe even preaching I would have found uplifting. I’m sorry that there seems to be any kind of rift over how to remember Dr. King properly here. But I’d bet that we’re not the only city in the country that has watched such divisions develop. Throughout his ministry King understood that too well friends and allies disagree.

This year’s service at Plymouth, as always, stirred poignant memories. I’ll never forget my visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The doors were chained that day. I stopped nearby at the reflecting pool where Dr. King’s casket seems to float. In recent years, this has become part of a 35-acre complex known as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical site. The U.S. Park Service runs it. Thousands, black and white, visit every year.

Yes, memories. In another year, on a reporting trip to Memphis, I had my taxi take me to the Lorraine Motel. I climbed the stairs to the second floor. I stood at the door of the room and stared for some time at the bed Dr. King was said to have slept in for the last time.

Just a few paces away, I stepped onto the balcony where he stood talking with The Rev. Jesse Jackson when James Earl Ray shot him. Just the day before, he said he had been to the mountain. Like Moses, he had seen the promised land.

In our racially integrated public schools here and elsewhere you do get a glimpse of the promised land. But we’re not there. Racial divisions survive in jobs, income and poverty. The numbers of blacks and Hispanics locked up in prisons mocks any claims to equal justice.

I’m so gratified that my granddaughter Tanya wanted to join me for Plymouth’s King memorial service. You know, it’s in our own families where dreams of equal justice take form. It’s in our families where we keep King’s memory alive. It’s with those closest to us that we set the example for how to treat others, respecting and celebrating the differences.

Every year, we set aside a holiday to honor the founder of our country, George Washington. We set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves. How fitting then, that we’ve set aside a day to honor the memory of Dr. King who pointed the way for us to grant full freedom to every person.

Next year, I’ll be at Plymouth Congregational Church once more. I’ll rededicate anew myself to that dream.

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