The Day the Preacher Spoke

The March on Washington in late August of 1963 had been planned by Bayard Rustin, an old school civil rights organizer who had been in the movement for longer than I had been alive in 1963.

His political clout was reinforced by A. Phillip Randolph and Roy Wilkins. Wilkins led the NAACP, then the best known of the mainstream civil rights organizations. Joining Mr. Wilkins was Whitney Young, head of the Urban League.

Mr. Randolph was the dean of the group. His Pullman Porters were legendary as a labor organization and civil rights group. The Pullman Porters had leveraged concessions from none other than Franklin Roosevelt.

Known officially as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, they had among their members a man named E. D. Nixon.

It was E. D. Nixon who gently but firmly persuaded a young Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama to lead a boycott of all stores and public transportation in the southern city for a simple cause — the right to sit anywhere in a city bus.

That cautious and studious young preacher was the son of a middle-class family from Atlanta and one who had been raised in his father’s church. Young Martin Luther King, Jr. was a theology student — far more than he was an activist; and when he took over the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, its congregation had just replaced an activist named Vernon Johns.

King was no Vernon Johns. Johns was not only brilliant but brash and fearless. As historian Taylor Branch tells us, Johns had seen fit to punch a young Robert Maynard Hutchins in the mouth after Hutchins declared that Johns could not have outstripped him academically while both were at Oberlin.

Hutchins would go on to lead the University of Chicago and Johns would go to Montgomery.

But the small city southern Baptist congregation wasn’t quite ready for Johns’ dynamism, Branch tells us. Martin King was to be more their style.

Yet, history and the call of God intervened. Along with the firm convincing of E. D. Nixon. Nixon made it plain to young Rev. King that it was his time to act in history. No more only reading Gandhi.

That was 1957. By the time of the March in 1963, King’s name was known throughout the Nation. But for those older Black Americans like my late Grandfather, he was one of the preachers.

The advances — the concrete advances in the Southern Movement for Civil Rights, which would later be translated into the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would come from lawyers.

Brown v. Board of Education and all of its cousin and companion cases were the work of lawyers from Spottswood Robinson to Thurgood Marshall and William Coleman. Others, like my grandfather, sought to train the next generation of those lawyers. What could the preachers do that was tangible?

By the time of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Kennedy brothers themselves were dubious — but perhaps in a different way. They had until then been cautiously mediating between their southern Democratic allies and the movement leaders. They worried that firebrands like John Lewis of SNCC and others dedicated to direct action might provoke trouble.

So concerned was the Administration about Lewis’ speech that they stationed someone at the microphone power cord poised to pull the plug at the first sign of incitement. It never happened.

But, then came the preacher. The story is that as King spoke Mahalia Jackson stood nearby in the crowd. In the tradition of African American religious call and response, those listening would speak back to the young minister. The whole world was watching.

Earlier, Mrs. Jackson had heard of King preaching on a dream. King had spoken in a North Carolina high school gymnasium — in the small town of Rocky Mount in the fall of 1962.

Then on August 28, 1963, Mahalia Jackson is reported to have said: “Tell them about the Dream!”

Then after some twelve minutes of measured recital of the historicity of America’s willful blindness to its own hollow promise of justice, and the quiet assurance to those in power that this would be a campaign not of violence but of King’s “soul-force,” a direct expropriation from Gandhi’s. “satyagraha,” King turned from diplomacy to evangelism.

If one watches closely, after Dr. King first says the now famous phrase, “I still have a dream,” there is no more conciliation — the diplomacy of race is ended.

King moves to the ground that even white Americans in 1963 understood was ceded to Black Americans exclusively and without reserve: the Church.

Here, King sensing the cultural platform upon which he stood becomes exactly what my grandfather had named him: a preacher. Now he adroitly allowed white America to come to church in the shadow of Lincoln himself.

And as King’s peroration rose in steeper steps of juxtaposition to the America that was dreamed but not realized and the America that was (and still is) partly mythical, King preached the sermon of what all Americans secretly hoped they might become.

He broke the captive’s dilemma of petty hatreds through the proclamation of what must be someday in reality.

This was the day the preacher spoke and, knowing his congregation was the entire world, no one would see him or America ever the same.

-Albert Turner Goins

(I have referenced portions from Taylor Branch, “Parting the Waters.”)