Memphis, TN--Twice a year, I come here to attend theological school and I always find my way to the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel. Everytime, I look up at the big funeral wreath on the balcony in front of Room 306.
I was eight when the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death was announced. I come to the parking lot of the Lorraine to remember our past and ponder what the future holds.
Integration and social change came, in large part, because hundreds of pastors left their sanctuaries and put their lives on the line to make a difference. They used oratorical skills to inspire a generation to stand up against dog bites, police beatings and fire hoses.
“There were so many death threats against King, he told me to stop telling him,” said the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, 76, in an interview. Kyles, fighting for better wages for striking sanitation workers, invited King to come to Memphis to assist in the garbage workers strike. He was with King for the ‘Mountaintop’ speech. And a day later, Kyles and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy were with king in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.
In King’s time, the church was one of the few places where African Americans could hold positions of authority. Now, from Memphis to Atlanta, African Americans run the cities that once legally kept them out. Some churches have tens of thousands of members and their pastor’s fly around the world on private jets.
On August 28th, the nation’s first African American president will dedicate a shrine to King on the National Mall.
But I wonder what will happen after the celebration?
"Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way," King once said.
When I was a child, I was blessed with role models who put their lives on the line against racism and Jim Crow. I remember meeting Martin Luther King Sr. at the Six Avenue Baptist Church in Pensacola. I also had pastors in my life like the Revs K.C. Bass, B. J. Brooks and H.K. Mathews—all fighting to integrate public facilities.
As a theology student and minister, I believe that too many of us have become complacent when so much crying and suffering remains.
Today, the neighborhood between the Lorraine Motel and Mason Temple, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ where King gave his last speech, is a half boarded. In South Memphis, blacks and whites have escaped in search of better and safer places to live. Talk of urban renewal there and in many cities is just talk.
Television host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West, on their recent Poverty Tour, criticized the president for not using his bully pulpit to help the poor.
This month, they stopped at the Progressive National Convention in Washington to help honor Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, the 93-year-old preaching legend who is known as the ‘poet laureate of American Protestantism.”
The Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee wrote in is book , Faith in the Fire: “It takes humility to transfer faith from us to God. There is too much stubborn pride in too many of us, and a lot of that comes from dumbness and self deception.”
But more than what he wrote is the fact that long after Smiley and West were gone, Taylor was there shaking hands and greeting people.
The Rev. Kyles, of Memphis, said he remains inspired by the famous ‘mountaintop’ speech, in which King--the night before he was killed—said God had allowed him to see the promise land.
“I have held fast to that Dream,” Kyles said. “That is what keeps me going.”
Even though Kyles joked about enduring the pain from a recent surgical procedure to remove a cataract and Taylor is now 93, they are still sacrificing and taking time to spend time with the ordinary.
Our heroes of the past—alive and dead—remind us where we have come from and the kind of sustained effort that is needed to ensure that our future is better than our past.