This is the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday is a US national holiday this week on January 15 the anniversary of his birth. I have vivid personal memories of Dr. King and what he marched for, and how I followed. His Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March 1965 was a major event for me.
When the US government ordered National Guard and US Army troops to safeguard the Freedom march after a bloody failed attempt ended when Alabama police rioted, Dr. King invited everyone to join in the last leg of the march from the Montgomery city limits to the steps of the state capitol building. Alabama Governor George Wallace has vowed to block the march and we were not sure what he would do that day. As I remember, four of us from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago announced our intention to travel to Montgomery for the march and got good wishes and some traveling money. We rode the train all night and arrived in plenty of time on March 25. There were an estimated 25,000 of us flooding the streets leading to the capitol building. Dr. King’s address was carried over loud speakers, even to us 3 blocks away. His most memorable quote was, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.” The march ended peacefully. After he spoke, we were among the first to leave for Union Station. Although the stewards and porters had been very attentive to us and expected us on the return trip, the GM&O would be leaving on schedule. We got back to Chicago in time for Friday classes.
I have often wondered, “What difference it made?” We swelled the crowd by a miniscule amount, as we had done on June 21, 1964 when we were 5 or 6 of 65,000 who walked behind Dr. King through the Chicago Loop to Soldier’s Field to hold the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights.
My closest experience in his presence was when he came to Athens Ohio to speak to the Triennial assembly of the World Student Christian Federation. I was in the choir on stage with him and had a chance to shake his hand. It is remembered that his speech congealed the Student Christian Movement and Christian students to join the US civil rights campaign and provided impetus for lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides, as well as other non-violent acts of defiance.
Back in my home town of Jacksonville, Illinois my senior year at Illinois College in 1961 was unlike other years in several ways, following the Athens Triennial conference. I was a chairman of the United Campus Christian Fellowship, and, along with countless other new civil rights activists, we decided to join the MacMurray College Wesley Fellowship in bringing civil rights to our town starting with Spatz’s ice cream parlor on East State Street. We were informed that students of color had to order their milk shakes and banana splits at an outside window along an alleyway. The district attorney had advised us that he would prosecute to end this racial injustice if we could gather state’s evidence. We formed two small student groups, one all white, and the other integrated, and entered the store a few minutes apart. The white group was served, but milkshakes for the integrated group never came. After a while the owner demanded that the second group leave since he had a sign posted that announced he “had the right to seat and serve” whomever he chose. We got his order to leave and the reason for it on cassette tape. The issue was in the newspaper and on radio. We heard that rather than have a repeat of the action, the movie theaters and other restaurants in town quietly ended their racist practices. My father was livid that commercial businesses could be bullied that way, and that his own son was one of the radicals. It was a new aspect of me he had not guessed I would develop. He joined George Wallace’s campaign for President to show his aggravation with the way Democrats like me were telling people how to run their lives.
It began with my failure to see how any of our friends in high school were significantly defined by color. It went on with my commitment to live as a Christian making a difference. But it would never have gotten beyond a philosophical point of view if it had not been for a half- hour in an ice cream parlor following a call to action by Dr. King.
It all comes back to me, as we get ready to mark the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.