I have gone to commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day for years and years, but until Sunday, I hadn’t experienced an actual celebration of Dr. King.
For the first time at one of these events, I was the minority in the room, and it felt good.
I should have put it together earlier, but I didn’t. When my friend Maggie of the NAACP announced the 30th annual event at her church, the Second Congregational Church of Pittsfield, MA, something should have rung a bell, but it didn’t.
When I stepped into the building housing the 170-year-old congregation, however, the light bulb went off. This was the church that had been served in the 1800s by Samuel Harrison, who later became the chaplain to the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, the African-American regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. I’ve written about Samuel Harrison in this blog; it was largely because of his efforts that African-American soldiers in the Civil War finally received the same pay as white soldiers.
That the church should still be largely an African-American parish wasn’t something that had occurred to me. Whether it should have or not, I don’t know. I do know that there is nothing wrong with white people commemorating Dr. King’s birthday and legacy; indeed, it should be encouraged. His larger message was to all people, as he himself said, and should ultimately have benefited all people, black, white, Jew, and Gentile.
Yet there has been something missing for me at the mostly white commemorations I’ve been at; a certain authenticity lacking in our white liberal do-gooding group. It has seemed, some years, as if the African-Americans present were tokens rather than the people most directly affected by the civil rights movement past and present.
From the moment the guest choir of the Macedonian Baptist Church of Albany, NY, processed in singing and dancing, I knew I was where I wanted to be. The program took on its own life as the expected emcee had not been able to make it and Maggie took over at the last minute. A tall, graceful woman who retains the voice of her Southern childhood, Maggie called for song when she felt like hearing songs and speakers when she felt like hearing speakers. She called twice for the choir to sing, and they had everyone on their feet, arms raised in exultation, and the Spirit reached right into us. A man did an impromptu dance up and down the aisle, and we smiled at his jubilation.
There were serious moments as well. One of the speakers, a young man who works with youth, called upon not only restraint and justice on the part of police across the country, but also on African-American youth to take pride in themselves and pull up their pants. This elicited many cries of “Amen” from the elders. A group of youngsters called Kids 4 Harmony played classical music on violins; the children study two hours four afternoons a week to perfect their talent and are provided the opportunity to participate in student orchestras and musical competitions around the state.
After the offering was taken, Maggie remembered we hadn’t yet sung “Lift Every Voice,’’ and she jumped up to remind us. Without prompting, we all reached for the hands of the people nearest us and without missing a beat began the African-American anthem written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, John Rosamund Johnson.
The main speaker was a former pastor at Second Congregational, the Reverend Leonard Comithier, who now serves the Macedonian Baptist Church. He began by yelling out, “I’m not a speaker!” Voices responded, “Preach it!” And boy, did he. Adhering to the theme of “Reawaken the Dream,” he preached from 1 Kings Chapter 13, the story of King Jeroboam pointing to a prophet and calling for his arrest. The prophet had challenged the king’s evil reign and sacrifices at the altar of God. As the king pointed, “the hand that he stretched out against him [the prophet] withered so that he could not draw it back to himself.” This is what happens, Pastor Comithier said, when you speak truth to power as Dr. King did.
“Where are the prophets now?” he asked. We can only reawaken the dream when we all begin speaking truth to power and refuting the hateful rhetoric that abounds in our national life, particularly coming from Presidential candidates. When we demand justice, when we demand equal rights, when we give ourselves to the will of God as Dr. King did, even unto death.
As the “Amens” died down after Pastor Comithier’s preaching, Maggie, again touched by the Spirit, called on a woman she knew to sing “Precious Lord,” Dr. King’s favorite hymn. And oh my goodness, what a perfect way to end. Her voice reverberated throughout the large sanctuary as bodies swayed back and forth.
I was still swaying as I went out into the freezing cold night to make the hour-long drive home. I had a lot of food for thought on my way along the route that I could almost drive blindfolded. It had actually felt good to be a minority in that celebration, though I was treated as a full participant. I know I can never know in my gut the depth of pain and desire and frustration of those who have been oppressed by white people. But I do feel I know a little bit more now about how to counter it, how to speak truth to white privilege and power, and, yes, how to celebrate.