Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. by Barbara Roche
Sometimes a human being rises above those around us and inspires us to be
more than we ever imagined. That person may sing like Whitney Houston or move like Simone Biles or play the cello like YoYo Ma. Today we are remembering a moral and spiritual giant, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I never met Dr. King, but I was in his presence three times and I remember
where I was when I heard of his assassination.
In 1962, just as I was beginning to work in Spokane, I watched on TV the
actions taking place in the South for Civil Rights. If I had been free to join
the protests, I would have, but now I was committed to work with a church.
I began to hear about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I remember discussing with others about his tactics, but I was not too caught up by him.
That was to happen later when I was at the Inter Church Center on Riverside Drive in New York City. The building is next to Riverside Church and I noticed one afternoon a stream of people going to the church. The word was that Dr. King was going to speak. I ambled over, out of curiosity, and found I was one of the last to enter the church, which was filled to capacity. I was directed to a large room for the overflow. The sound was piped in. I sat down surrounded by African Americans.
This is what I remember: Dr. King began to speak in those majestic tones.
He told us about the young people sitting at the segregated counters and the indignities they endured, coffee poured down their backs, ketchup squeezed on their heads. He continued describing the horrors of segregation. The intimidation, the voter suppression, the poor schools, the economic repression. He spoke of taking direct action but doing so non violently. The more he spoke the worse I felt, til I was bowed over in my chair unable to raise my head. ‘ I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I who had a first class education, who had studied abroad. I didn’t know this about my country.’ Afterwards, I went into the sanctuary to see this man who had touched my soul. He was of average height dressed in a dark suit standing near the front speaking with a few people. I’ve always regretted I didn’t walk up the aisle to thank him.
In 1966 I was working in Chicago and Dr. King came North to address the
segregation in the city run by Mayor Richard C. Daley. King focused on the
horrible housing on the south and west sides. He began with a rally at
Soldier Field that I attended. I walked into the huge stadium with thousands of African Americans. Frankly I felt nervous. I was by myself and I thought if this crowd should turn on White people I could be injured.
The rally began with warm up songs and speeches and cheers. I remember
the cheers because once again I was shaken. The leader would yell, Are you
proud of your nappy hair? And crowd roared back, Yes. Are you proud of
your wide nose? Yes. Are you proud of your black skin? And the roar was
deafening. I am thinking: Are African Americans so beat down that this is
where you have to begin?
Finally, Dr. King began to speak. I have never heard before or since anyone
speak words so powerful that they drained all the hatred from the stadium.
I felt at one with my brothers and sisters of color. I walked out of the
stadium at peace. All fear was gone.
After the rally Dr. King led a parade to the doors of city hall, where
reminiscent of Martin Luther, he posted demands for the city to end
segregation. At this point I stood on the sidewalk and watched the
thousands march by. I wanted to join them, but being alone, I thought it
wiser to applaud rather than join the crowd.
On April 4, 1968, I had just come into my Chicago apartment from a working trip. I turned on the TV to learn that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis. I called the presbytery executive, Rev. Don Zimmerman, who had not heard. His words to me, “Stay at home. This city could be up in flames tonight.”
How right he was. More than 300 buildings were burnt and if there had been the famous Chicago wind that night, many more could have gone up in flames.
The next morning I called a school teacher friend in Oak Park. We were both curious about what the burnt-out sections of the city looked like. She had a car, one that would sometime go out on her, but we decided to get together and drive into the devastated areas. Strange as it may seem, no one tried to stop us. The National Guard was out, but they paid no attention to our solitary car driving around the blocks of smoldering buildings. The few people we saw looked dazed and stunned. Some sat on the steps of their burned apartments staring into space.
Years later, one day I was visiting the Frazier Historical Museum in Louisville. In the gift shop was a photo of Dr. King with Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, who at the time was the top executive (stated clerk of the GA) in the Presbyterian Church. Earlier he is alleged to have said to Dr. King “We (Presbyterians) come – late, late we come – but we come.”
*Used with permission by Barbara Roche