Last Day and Reflections

July 11th, 2011

Well, our trip concluded three weeks ago. I decided to wait a little while before this final post to try and digest some of what we experienced and reflect a little on what we picked up along the way.

But first, a quick recap of our last day.

Our one and only stop for the day (surrounded by a few hours of driving) was the Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio; the only course to be designed, built, owned, and operated by an African-American.  The late William Powell’s goal for the course was to make it a place where anyone was welcome and could play.  He was able to accomplish this despite significant opposition, and unfortunately is still the only African-American to hold this distinction.  While there we had the chance to meet his daughter, Renee Powell, who is an accomplished golfer and is now the head golf professional at Clearview.  We also were able to learn more about the history of the course and about Mr. Powell and his work.  Overall it was an enjoyable final stop of the tour and a reminder of how comprehensive the effects of racism and prejudice are.

Renee Powell helps Bernardo perfect his golf swing!

Renee Powell helps Bernardo perfect his golf swing!

After the bus returned to Beaver Falls, we loaded into the van and returned to Messiah.  Needless to say the discussion on the way back was pretty heavy; it was interesting hearing the thoughts, stories, and experiences that everyone took away from the trip.  It was also a little frustrating as we began to dig in to the highly complex question of where do we go from here and how does it apply to our group and our institution.  These are questions I’m still working on myself.  An obvious beginning, I suppose, is that the stories and realities of our nation’s past, no matter how painful, cannot be allowed to be forgotten and must be faced.

“The truth will set you free…”

I know, kind of an overused statement, but still 100% accurate, especially in this case.  Obviously my experience is extremely limited, but the only efforts at reconciliation that I have seen actually work are those that start by digging deeper into the realities of what we have glazed over and chosen to forget.  It’s a dangerous thing to dredge these things up, but the process of healing and reconciliation for all involved is more then worth it.  The hard part is finding a space to be able to initiate such a discussion, especially in a time and place where it is much easier to choose to think that we have come far enough and don’t need to agitate the situation.

In any event, this trip was a good way to get a better glimpse of everything that I missed but benefit from.  It has prompted me to look deeper into my own history to see what I have been missing within my own background, as well as made me more aware and more thankful for the luxuries that I do have that others paid for.  If any of you ever have the chance to take this trip or one similar to it, I would strongly encourage you not to miss that chance.  I know if I get another chance I’ll be all over it.  🙂


"If we have honestly acknowledged our painful but shared past, then we can have reconciliation."

Our final day and final thoughts

June 23rd, 2011

20 June 2011
While much of the civil rights movement has been talked about (in the past week) in terms of desegregating public spaces, providing equal opportunities, and changing laws concerning employment, access to education, voting rights, etc etc. Attempts to desegregate were also being made in other areas of life, using other means. Today’s visit to Clearview Golf Club in New Canton, OH brought this home to me. Dr. William Powell, a World War II veteran and an aficionado of golf from a very early age built this golf course with his own hands in 1946. In those days golf courses were segregated. He tried to get a loan, but he was denied a loan and then ultimately was helped by his elder brother and some friends to start up the golf course…for everyone. So Dr. Powell integrated golf by building his own golf course that would be inclusive. In 2009 the PGA awarded him its highest award—the Distinguished Service Award (It took the PGA 52 years to reach this conclusion!! But glad they did it). Dr. Powell died on 31 August 2009 at the age of 91. The club is now operated by his daughter Dr. Renee Powell and son Fred Powell. Renee Powell is a celebrated golf player and instructor who has received multiple awards, citations, and prizes. The club offers camps, training, and scholarships for deserving students.
At Clearview, we were provided lunch and a historical overview of the place. Dr. Renee Powell provided me a brief lesson on how to swing a golf club! I hope it did not look like me playing cricket or swinging an axe!
The Civil Rights Tour has now ended and we are all now at home. But the memories of the trip and its implications will continue to unfold in days to come. We did watch some documentaries like “Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306” which was Rev. “Billy” Kyles eyewitness account of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We also watched a short documentary called on Dr. William Powell the founder of Clearview Golf Club called “Last Memory: Bill Powell of Clearview Golf Club.

I will be reflecting on many aspects of this trip for months to come. Indeed, it gave me a view of the Civil Rights movement that is remarkably different from what is retailed in books, media, and conversations. Being in the actual places in conjunctions with readings, watching audio visuals, and talking to participants was a something else…it gave me a feel of the movement quite unlike anything else I have known…especially the historic struggle of African American communities in the face of hatred, revulsion, and violence committed on them at many times and places.

I also arrived at the conclusion that the Civil Rights Movement was cobbled out of spontaneous movements and organized protests conducted by civic organizations. Most of us have heard of the NAACP or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But there were many more like the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee or “snick” ), Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACHMR), CORE, and many others. While some of these organizations were well known national organizations, others like the Birmingham Community Affairs Committee, Alabama Council on Human Relations, and the Montgomery Improvement Association operated on a more regional, local, or urban level. The SCLC in 1963 boasted a 1 million dollar budget and 100 employees (Steven Kasher, The Civil Rights Movement, p. 92). These civic organizations, their leaders and cadre played an important role in strategizing and mobilizing people to action. Careful exposure to the media took the movement not just to every living room in America, but even abroad. Newly independent Asian and African nations looked closely to the US government to see how it would respond to racism.

I wondered, as one of our speakers saw it, that the approximately 6 million African Americans who migrated to the north since the early 20th century were not migrants….but “refugees.” But could this act of voting with the feet be represented in such a fashion? What would historians of the United States think of such a view?

This tour has been a pilgrimage for me. It seems that the tour had to do with more than just the collection of information. It is personal, having to do with shaping one’s identity, self-perception, and understanding of one’s nation and location in the world. It evoked strong emotions and convinced me about the importance of race in the history of this country…a history that has a dark underside that will make reconciliation no easy task. But it did change our world as it drew on the works of international activists like “Mahatma” Gandhi. As Margaret Mead once observed, “Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I agree.

Dr. William Powell

The Sign says it all

Dr. Renee Powell teaches me how to swing...


June 19th, 2011

Kwame Lillard and Matthew Walker told a story yesterday from the summer of 1961: they went to a city swimming pool and tried to swim. They were made to wait for five and a half hours, during which time the pool was drained! Not only that pool, but 23 pools were drained, and pools were closed for two years. Rather than integrate the pools, no one gets to swim! Not a story of horrible violence, as is the story of the freedom riders, but it shows so clearly how everyone loses, everyone is hurt by the systems of racism.


June 19th, 2011

Nashville, TN was our activity headquarters for today with our primary stop being the Nashville Public Library and its Civil Rights Room. We had the opportunity to meet several Freedom Riders, including “Rip” Patton and Kwame Lillard. Mr. Patton kicked things off by speaking to us in the Civil Rights room about his experiences and then opened up the floor for a tag-team Q&A with Mr. Lillard. As with most of the speakers we have met throughout this tour, it was amazing to see the grace with which these gentlemen handled their circumstances, both during the time of the Freedom Rides and now. When relating their stories, it is clear that pain and frustration often were the norm, but there is no bitterness or hatred when they speak and teach. There is only a passion and determination to make sure that the sacrifices that were made in the past don’t go overlooked and that the mistakes of the past are not relived.

After departing the library with Mr. Lillard accompanying us on the bus, we went to Nashville National Cemetery where we were able to see a monument to the Civil War-era United States Colored Troops that were ignored for so long. Mr. Lillard informed us that this is the only statue/monument of it’s kind in such a place and that it was long overdue when it was placed in 2006. Our next stop was Fisk University to visit a monument to W.E.B. Dubois. During this time we met another Freedom Rider, Mr. Matthew Walker. Both Mr. Lillard and Mr. Walker joined us for lunch and shared numerous stories and thoughts with us before we all returned to the library for the opening of a new art exhibit.

Once in a lifetime sums it up…

“Threads of a Story: History Inspiring Art” by Ms. Charlotta Janssen is a truly exceptional tribute made up of a collection of portraits using the mug shots of Freedom Riders and blending these with newspaper clippings and various images from the period to display the courage and commitment of the Riders during their struggle. With all that we have seen on this tour prior to this stop, the opening had a dreamlike feel to it when talking with the various Freedom Riders who were in attendance. It was exciting and inspirational to be able to look at one of the exhibits on the wall and then turn and ask questions of the man or woman to whom it was designed to celebrate. Being able to interact with living legends who carry themselves with well-deserved dignity and overwhelming humility was a true honor.

Our final stop was a fun one; previously during the ride to the cemetery Mr. Lillard had pointed out the exit to where Oprah Winfrey’s father had a barber shop. Due to time constraints we were not able to hit that spot at the time. However, with our activities for the day concluded we were able to stop briefly and speak with Mr. Winfrey at his shop. Might sound a little strange but I gotta say that one of the things I enjoyed most was the fedora that he was rockin’…oh, and did I mention that his barber shop is located on his street…literally on the corner of Lischey and Vernon Winfrey Aves…props to the man who got that swagger.

So yeah, from there we shipped out to the ‘Natti ‘Natti for the night. Tomorrow our trip ends; goodbyes aren’t really my thing, especially after traveling with such an awesome crew on a tour that has been totally mind-blowing. But I still got some time before I hafta work on that, so for now I’ll bask in the glow of yet another blessed day…God is good, all the time.



June 19th, 2011

“God is the author of segregation, Gen 9: 25-27.” Yet another placard held by white demonstrators displayed its message on one of the photos in the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, TN.
But most of today was about something else…and if there was a theme that could tie it all together…it would be “Remembering the Freedom Riders.” We met with a number of Freedom Riders—Rip Patton, Kwame Lillard, Matthew Walker, Joseph Charles Jones, Etta Marie Simpson, and Joy Reagan Leonard. All of them eloquently articulated their stories and recalled with pride their participation in the freedom rides. They shared, often untold experiences on their Freedom Ride. I also asked various individuals about Governor John Patterson of Alabama who was interviewed in “The Freedom Riders.” I thought it was a carefully orchestrated interview and he steered away from any kind of apology for the poor treatment of civil rights protesters in Alabama under his tenure in the 1950s and 1960s. For the moment it seems that this is all we have got, opined one observer and civil rights activist.
At the Nashville Public Library, a beautiful building with wonderful facilities for reading and research, we observed the launch of an exhibition “Threads of a Story: History Inspiring Art.” The German artist Charlotta Janssen, had made oil portraits of individuals, white and black, men and women involved in the Civil Rights movement from their mugshots or booking photographs. Janssen’s work represents newer strands in the story of the civil rights movement…suggesting that there are different ways of remembering the event…and this perhaps has a lot to do with where we are coming from. Janssen is from Germany and this exhibition was about her interior journey about how she became part of this story of civil rights and her thankfulness of being engage…She talked about how Barack Obama’s election made her feel part of the unfolding story of America… Charlotta’s artistic intervention in this story is indicative of immigrant retellings of the civil rights story, and room must be made for such imaginations…and there will be many more similar interventions in days to come. There might be disputes about the content of the paintings, as different individuals and groups have their own versions of what took place in the civil rights movement or how it should be remembered. The Civil Rights is interesting because many of its actors are still alive which means that there many more ways to remember and forget the movement. The living survivors have different recollections of the event and in Nashville, I realized there was a feeling that Nashville’s role in the movement must never be diminished and needs to reemphasized. I could go on here…but how we remember the civil rights movement and represent it, is fascinating.
Later, Kwame Lillard took us around on a tour of the city of Nashville and told about the important places which were sites of the civil right movement. This included a visit to the Nashville National Cemetery where we visited the graves of the colored troops. We also visited Oprah Winfrey’s father, Vernon Winfrey, who greeted the group and spoke a few words. After this we drove to Cincinnati reaching our hotel by 10.40pm. Tomorrow is the last day of our tour.
We watched documentaries like “Road to Freedom” and “Prom Night in Mississippi.” The latter documentary was about film actor Morgan Freeman’s efforts to desegregate a high school prom event in Charleston, Mississippi. Believe it or not…as late as 2008 (!) the school had separate prom dances for African Americans and white students! In the end an integrated prom dance was held, which Freeman paid for. However, an all white prom was held as well, and attended by a small group of students. We also watched a movie, based on true events called “Blood Done Sign My Name” about the murder of a Vietnam veteran by a white businessman and the case that followed.

With Rip Patton, Nashville, TN.

Freedom Rider Kwame Lillard

Joseph Charles Jones, Freedom Rider alongside his portrait by artist Charlotta Janssen

Joy Reagan Leonard alongside her portrait.

The Graves of "Colored Troops" at the Nashville National Cemetery with a commemorative statue made by Roy Butler.

meanwhile, in another part of town…

June 18th, 2011

Today was a heavy travel day, starting with our departure from Memphis at 8:30am. After a trip of 2.5 hours to Little Rock 9 Visitor’s Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, we had the pleasure of meeting and listening to Dr. Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the “Little Rock 9” who led the way in integrating Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Sadly, after several bad experiences with a number of the white students and with the teachers and administration looking the other way she wound up being expelled later that school year.

Our time with Dr. Trickey was unique from most of the other speakers we met with on this trip. After a brief explanation and background, the session was mostly Q&A and had a high degree of interaction. She was straight to the point and was animated and very passionate with her discussion. One thing that she brought up that I had never considered was the mass departure of thousands of African-Americans from the south to other parts of the United States. She referred to them as refugees needing asylum and said it was really no different than the similar situations in other countries except that instead of leaving one country and going to another, African-Americans moved to a different part of the country to escape the injustices.

We left the Visitor’s Center and went across the street where we had a chance to actually see Central High School. The school, like so many other structures in the south, could be described as regal and was highly impressive. During this trip it has been somewhat difficult to see so much of the incredible beauty of the area that has been mixed with the horrors of segregation.

After visiting Central, we went to the “Testament” statue of the 9 at the capitol building where we were able to photograph Minnijean with Minnijean. We then got to have lunch with her at a local spot called “Sim’s”. From there, we said goodbye to Little Rock and Dr. Trickey and made the 6 hour trip to Nashville, TN to spend the evening.

With all of the bus time we had the chance to view a few documentaries and a feature film. The first two were on the way to Little Rock and followed the Little Rock 9 and Dr. Trickey’s experiences. We also viewed the movie “Freedom Song”, as well as the recent PBS documentary “Freedom Riders”. An interesting footnote on this is that one of our students participated in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride that wrapped up in May. Tomorrow we check out Nashville a little bit and then head to Ohio, where we will prepare to wrap up the trip in Cincinnati and Canton.


The Little Rock 9

June 18th, 2011

Do you remember what it felt like to start a new high school? Maybe you moved to a new city or perhaps you started at a private school instead of going to a public school or vice versa. Do you remember the feelings of apprehension and nervousness about finding your classes, about who you would eat lunch with, if you would fit in and make friends?

What would you have thought if you were an African American student and you were going to integrate? In other words, you were going to attend an all-white high school for the first time?

This is what it was like for the Little Rock 9.  Who are the Little Rock 9? The Little Rock 9 were 9 African American students who were to integrate into an all-white high school. The year was 1957 and the high school was Central High. One of the members of the Little Rock 9 spoke to our group today at the Little Rock 9 Visitor’s Center.  Her name is Dr. Minnijean Brown Trickey.

Minnijean told us about her experiences attempting to go to Central High.  When she and the other 8 students went to Central for the first day of school, they were turned away by the National Guard who were sent out by the Governor of Arkansas to keep the 9 students away. The second day /attempt #2, the students were met by an angry mob of white people and were turned away again.  The third day/attempt #3, the students made it to their first class but were again sent away after another, this time violent mob scene  erupted.   Finally, President Eisenhower intervened and sent in federal soldiers to accompany the 9 from classroom to classroom.   (Excerpts from “Teaching Tolerance Fall 2007 – The School Year that Changed a Nation).

When Minnijean and the rest of the African American students were finally able to attend Central High regularly, they were constantly harassed. Today, in our session with her, Minnijean recounted how the students would constantly step on her heels so that her heels were consistently bleeding. She was called every name in the book and was regularly followed  by students continuing to harass her throughout the hallways.  She was subjected to jeers about her appearance and was consistently called “Ugly.”  At one point, a student threw a purse at her and hit her in the head.  The purse was full of combination locks.

It is difficult to think about having to endure this type of harassment as an adult, but for a 16 year old girl, it is unfathomable.  I think back on my own experience  and consider the time I spent worrying about starting a new school when there was no harassment, no fear for my life, no jeering from an angry and violent mob.  Mine was just the struggle of a normal teenager wanting to make sure I could fit in and was comfortable.  My worries were laughable compared with these 9 students who endured physical and emotional pain and suffering in order to gain their high school education.

Today, I think of the courage that these 9 exhibited am sobered by the following quote from Minnijean. “Before Central High, I knew racism as condescension. At Central, I came to know racism as hatred.”

Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957

June 18th, 2011

Little Rock in Arkansas was the site of a courageous movement to integrate schools in that state. 9 young men and women decided to study in the all-white Central High in Little Rock, AK. Horrified, indignant, and shocked at this demand for equality of access to education, white crowds gathered, rioted, and badgered these 9 students. Placards displaced messages that called for the preservation of Christian faith through segregation, decrying racial “mixing” and so on. Such a sentiment might seem anachronistic to most of us, and I wondered at the source of such a sentiment. I don’t have any answers….but perhaps somewhere deep down in their hearts, the men and women who made up these mobs, perhaps realized that their worlds were coming to an end. They—the (im)moral world order on which it was based—segregation—the heart of their world was being dismantled—and along with it a panoply of legal rules, local customs, and all its pathological practices (the KKK, separate places for consumption of food, travel, and even worshipping God)…This perhaps does not really explain it all…and all this continues to baffle me…Segregation is certainly a pathological condition, it would seem to me…and it afflicted communities in the South as well as in the North. I guess, they were struggling with the question of diversity…and I wonder how will all this go down as the country and the world continues to diversify…will we succeed in becoming more inclusive…?
Anyway, the Central High school is today a national historic monument and perhaps the only functioning school placed under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service. The school was closed but at the Little Rock 9 Visitor Center we had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Minnijean Brown Trickery one of the original Little Rock 9. Dr. Brown-Trickery who is now a diversity trainer, currently holds the Shipley Visiting Writer Fellowship at Arkansas State University. She shared vignettes from her time at the school (she was unjustly expelled from the school and did not complete her education there), her life in Canada and now in the United States. At the museum we also met her daughter Spirit Trickery and later all of us went to Sims Barbecue for lunch. While meeting her, and hearing her life stories will always be treasured by me, I was also sobered by the hate, invective, and violence they suffered why responding in a non-violent manner. One of the markers of the civil rights movement is the consistent practice of non-violence and the peaceful, but firm manner in which they carried out their protests. This has been truly inspirational and Gandhi’s foundational role in helping civil rights leaders to do this cannot be discounted. We also went to the “Testament” Little Rock 9 statue at the Capital Building in Little Rock where all 9 have been immortalized in a sculpture. The 9 have received honorary doctorates, government awards, and even can be found in commemorate coins and stamps! And 8 of them are still alive!
Our long hours on the bus provided an opportunity to engage events like Little Rock and the Freedom Riders through documentaries like “Journey to Little Rock,” and “Little Rock High.” We also saw a film called “Freedom’s Song.”
We also spent a lot of time discussing what we were experiencing, viewing, and feeling. It has been a long journey indeed for me…trying to understand all these details intellectually, racially (I realize the importance of this category in the United States), and even spiritually. And how can reconciliation be worked out in this context? For example, have churches in Little Rock taken real meaningful steps to apologize and begin the real task of integration? Ironically, churches in the United States continue to remain largely segregated…perhaps the one institution the civil rights movement was not able to transform! That is the irony of it all.

We are spending the night in Nashville.

With Dr. Minniejean Brown Trickery in Little Rock 9 Visitor Center, AK

Dr Minniejean Brown Trickery standing alongside her statue at the Arkansas State Capital

Central High, Little Rock (AK)

Things Hidden

June 17th, 2011

First there was Greensboro. A walk through the museum there was a walk through my childhood. I have sat at lunch counters like that, I have seen my mother’s poll tax receipt, I have bought cokes for a nickel from machines very much like the one in the museum. Who knew that coke made one hundred eleven machines that could fit in the wall, so that “white” and “colored” would buy from different sides of the same machine, each from their segregated waiting rooms at the bus or train station? Or that the price was five cents on the white side, but ten cents on the other side? Did I ever buy a coke, or did my parents ever buy me a coke, from a machine like that? There would have been no way to know. What can I not see today? How am I still blind? And what is intentionally hidden, like the other side of the coke machine?

Kyrie, eleison.

On Sunday morning we were in Atlanta, and I stepped inside the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church:

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by thy help I’ve come.

It felt very comfortable, like so many other Baptist churches I have been in during my life. The next day on to Albany, where we were inside another Baptist church – Mount Zion Baptist Church, now part of the Albany Civil Rights Museum. Again, just a normal Baptist church from that time in the south, a building with wonderful acoustics for congregational singing. On the walls were several posters telling the story of the Albany movement. The last one I read told the story of Kay Smith Pedrotti, white, and Gloria Ward, black. During the Albany movement both had spoken to the media as students, one supporting segregated schools, and the other the need for integration. In the 90s they met and rereconciled, a meeting Kay Smith Pedrotti called a “time of Gospel freedom.” I had to stifle the sobs that rose in my throat. Our churches remain as segregated as they were in the 60s, in all parts of the country. They are so much the same, yet so divided.

Christe eleison.

In Selma we walked across the Pettus bridge, imagining what it was like to see the state troopers waiting with clubs and tear gas, imagining the chaos that followed almost immediately. We learned that Bloody Sunday was not a relatively brief encounter after crossing the bridge, but that the violence went on all night long back in town. Nothing was sacred: troopers rode their horses into the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church, knocking people into the baptistry.

How can I understand that in my lifetime (I was twelve years old at the time of Bloody Sunday) there were only 240 registered African-American voters out of a possible 15,000? How can I understand that those who tried to register usually lost their job?  Or that it became illegal for more than three people pf color to even meet and discuss voter registration? And that all of this was enoforced with state-sanctioned violence against non-violent protesters? And worst of all, that most of this was as invisible to whites as the other side of that coke machine.

Kyrie eleison.

When asked if she considered the Albany movement a failure or a success, Rutha Harris said, “…we have a black mayor…how could it be a failure when we have achieved so much that we fought for?” The civil rights movement of the sixties resulted in real, systemic change, and the results are visible throughout our country, north and south. On the other hand, “Segregation is alive and well in Selma,” said Joanne Bland, who participated as a child in Bloody Sunday and the march to Montgomery, and was often in jail. Systemic change, yes, but new systems follow that are also unjust. Slavery is replaced with Jim Crow; tear that down, and new structures achieve much the same thing. Selma is segregated, and so is the part of Pennsylvania where I live. I don’t see the reason why, but maybe I will find it on the other side of the coke machine. I just have to walk into the other waiting room and look.

“Martin always loved a good joke.”

June 17th, 2011

Our food for thought today began when we all loaded onto the bus to the tune “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MG’s, just one of the many popular artists from the Stax record label.  This helped set the mood for out trip to Memphis, TN, where we visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.  Here we were able to see the continued significance of music in the Civil Rights Movement.  It is interesting looking back and seeing the way the music progressed throughout the Movement, as well as the powerful effect the music and those who sing it can have on the people of a nation.  The thought process gets even meatier when you consider the popularity and influence of rap music that we see today.  Considering the power and influence that music had in those pivotal times forces me to wonder if we can be happy with the the themes and the direction that our music is helping to guide us in today.

Aaaaanywho, I digress…

From there we proceeded to the National Civil Rights Museum, located in Memphis as well…at the Lorraine Hotel, location of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968.  In terms of information and material, this stop was massive.  There were two wings of the museum with the first being in the Lorraine and the second being across the street in the building where James Earl Ray fired his shot from.  As mentioned before the sheer amount of information in this museum is overwhelming, and looking out the window at the balcony where Dr. King was shot and seeing the window across the street where it was fired from makes the experience surreal.

The balcony where Dr. King was assassinated

The balcony at the hotel where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968

A view of the window from which James Earl Ray fired his shot

A view of the window where James Earl Ray fired the shot from

Our next stop added to that feeling as we met Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church.  Rev. Kyles spent the last hour of Dr. King’s life, along with Rev. Ralph Abernathy.  They were preparing to leave for dinner at Rev. Kyles house when Dr. King was shot.

It was a thrill to be able to sit and listen to Rev. Kyles.  He mentioned that someone had once asked him what the three pastors spoke about during that hour, to which he replied, “We had preacher talk.”  When asked what that entailed he responded that is was things that preachers talk about and that it was really just “three guys talkin’.”  This is another thing that I have observed throughout our trip.  While myself and others on the trip and across the nation refer to Dr. King in a reverent sense (and rightfully so), those who interacted with him refer to him by his first name, Martin, and share so many things that can never be observed purely by watching the footage or listening to the speeches.  While many of us view his assassination as tragic, we are viewing it as the loss of an incredible leader and not as they would have, first as the loss of a dear friend in addition to a prominent icon of the Movement.

One example of something that they share that we cannot pickup alone is the fact that both Mrs. Juanita Abernathy and Rev. Kyles paint a picture of Dr. King as having a well-developed sense of humor (something that I think is totally awesome by the way!).  When I asked Rev. Kyles about this after he spoke, he confirmed that “Martin always loved a good joke.”  With the fairly stern image of courage that is always evident in most of what we normally see of Dr. King, this additional facet of his character to me helps to bring a legend to life and make the experience that much more meaningful.

Rev. Kyles also spoke of how he questioned why he was there at that point in time; why he had to be there for that terrible occurrence.  The reason that God revealed to him, he said, was that he was there to be a witness and to be able to share with others.  This was a very moving portion of his talk, as he became very passionate about this point.  It was also inspiring to me when I asked him afterwards if he had been afraid or concerned after the shot was fired that another shot might be coming for him.  He told me that the thought had not crossed his mind at the time and that all he was concerned about was that Martin was injured and lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  This impressed me as I believe that many of us, myself included, would probably have hit the deck or run for cover at that first shot.  The others on the balcony and in the courtyard of the hotel may not have been as well-known as Dr. King, but they certainly could be considered high-profile figures at the time.  And yet they were right out on the balcony without a second thought.

Myself and Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles

Photo with Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles

To wrap up our day, we hit up Beale Street in Memphis for dinner, in particular B.B. King’s Restaurant & Blues Club.  The joint was bangin’, as was the entire couple of blocks that the area encompassed.  It was a fun and relaxing way to wrap up the day.  And ironically, one of the last songs that the live band played just before we left was “Green Onions.”