To the Meissners, Spielmans, Gustafsons, and Lois Katt:
This letter is a response to the worship service on January 20, 2008 at First Congregational UCC in DeKalb. In some ways, it may have been better to write immediately, as often in postponing, we lose some initial insight. Sunday, the service reflected the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it was more indirectly than head-on. The hymns were “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
I have not been able to sing “We Shall Overcome” since the assassination of Dr. King. I’m sure Kathy was well aware of my tears and inability to finish during the service.
As a family, we don’t have opportunity to meet often, and when we do, we don’t always tell some of the family stories. One of the positive discoveries of the late 20th century in both preaching and counseling of various sorts has been the discovery of the importance of “family stories.” Part of society’s difficulties is that we are losing our stories. Therefore, this is an attempt to share a few of the stories that I was involved in during Holy Week, when Dr. King was assassinated. I would like to request that you read this together at some time as a family and take a few moments to reflect, and for the Meissners involved to share a few insights and open them to the entire family.
In Baltimore, the reaction to Dr. King’s murder came somewhat slowly, and was not violently directed toward individuals as in some other cities, but what violence there was, was property-oriented. In our neighborhood of Homestead Montebello, the only violence was the burning of a small grocery store, and that man had been mean and overcharged his customers for as long as I had known him.
When Baltimore began to react to King’s death, marital law was declared, and the inner city was ringed by National Guardsmen. A curfew was declared and no one was permitted in or out. I joined several other clergy, donned my clerical collar, and once or twice took food supplies in. Since it was to me unknown how the response might come, I opted to stay in the church for about 48 hours continuously so that the church could be available if any of the neighbors were bombed out or threatened. It was rumored that H. Rap Brown, the leader of S.N.N.C., one of the original non-violent student attempts, had escapedWashington, D.C., and was in our Homestead Montebello neighborhood. As a result, the Army Intelligence assigned and African American and White team to circle the area every hour. So every hour, they would come to the church, get a hot cup of coffee, and brief me on what was going on. Fortunately, nothing was going on, except on one occasion, a shot rang out and I learned later that someone had shot a dog that seemed on the verge of attack.
One of the sights I shall never forget was the 101st Airborne US Army paratroopers in our neighborhood. These are the crack outfits for battle in the US forces and have seen heavy action most recently in Iraq. It is one thing to sit and watch TV, and see Detroit or Los Angeles in violence. It is entirely different to see the paratroopers with automatic weapons at the ready in your neighborhood, by your church, and among your neighbors. They ringed City College School (a boys pre-liberal arts high school) and Eastern (a counterpart for the girls) down by Clifton Park, and eventually ringed the water reserve to prevent anyone from doing anything to the water supply. I remember having just read the Red Flag, Black Flag book of the anarchists takeover of the area around the Arc de Triumph in Paris, and thinking to myself of the massive number of ex-Viet Nam veterans, all trained in war in the area. But the area remained quiet.
Our church neighborhood, Homestead Montebello, was an area that had a few years ago been one of the most stable areas of the city, where folks came as bride and groom, raised their families, and stayed forty or fifty years. But as a result of some unethical realtors, the neighborhood was broken, from one family, two-story row houses to having two families renting per home. And, of course, the rents for the blue collar blacks were sky-high. Huber church was instrumental in organizing against these and other violations and injustices. As more and more of the white families either moved or died, the ratio of black to white was probably 90% to 10%, with the only whites being older families remaining and the blacks with several children per family.
When the reaction to Dr. King’s murder came to our neighborhood, it was from “outsiders” who were mobile and moving rapidly from area to area. Somehow in this environment, unofficial signals arose to indicate to the violent intruders that a friend lived here. Thus the house would be spared. One of the most positive and influencing factors of my life happened at this time. For the young black wife or husband would go next door to the older couple who had no idea what was going on, and say simply “Ms. Smith or Mr. George, would you mind if I just tie this black ribbon around the outside light, or would you mind if turning on your porch light tonight?”
And thus came the Passover.
I have always been intrigued, questioned, doubted that biblical story of the Angel of Death passing over the Hebrews of Egypt, but never, NEVER AGAIN. Love can and does conquer.
Finally, the leadership of the city and the African American community began to talk and listen to each other. Fortunately, the city leaders did more listening than talking, and it was Easter Saturday evening when peace returned and there was the possibility of a new beginning. Easter that day came with power, for “Christ was risen indeed.”
What started this reflection off was our church singing “We Shall Overcome.” As I’ve said, that song is loaded with memories for me. As the organ was playing and I tried singing to no avail, my mind flashed back and visually I saw the circle of predominantly black, but white also, standing in a ring around the sanctuary of Huber Memorial Church, holding hands at the conclusion of our service of memorial for the neighborhood, singing vibrantly and with faith “We Shall Overcome.” Even in writing this, the picture is stirring. Well, just a few stories of being in the right place at the right time.