FREE SPEECH ZONE | When I met Martin Luther King Jr and Josie Johnson

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1961 Luther League Convention in Miami Beach.

The passenger train gliding out of Saint Paul was filled with Lutheran teenagers who could have been extras in those wholesome, squeaky-clean, Gidget goes to the beach movies.  Our train was one of thirteen chartered passenger trains from around the country heading to Florida in August 1961 for a youth convention set up by the American Lutheran Church.

The adventure would fold our small Edina Community Lutheran Church contingent in with nearly 14,000 other Luther Leaguers. Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was among the notables who would speak to us at the Miami Beach convention site. We would consider perspectives shaped in a world far more complex, difficult and conflicted than Minnesota.

Miami Beach was a scant 250 miles from The Bay of Pigs, Cuba, where three months earlier, Fidel Castro's forces had routed a U.S. backed paramilitary invasion. Castro was courting the Soviet Union, the Cold War was heating up, and Americans were being told to build nuclear bomb shelters in their basements.

John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic President of the United States in January and then in rapid succession Yuri Gagarin and then Alan Shepard became the first humans in space, Freedom Riders launched their interstate bus trips through the segregated South, and medical scientists discovered the human genetic code. In Minnesota that spring, Harmon Killebrew and Earl Battey arrived with major league baseball and gas for my dad's Ford Fairlane convertible cost 27 cents per gallon at the Pure Oil station near Southdale.

The winds of change were blowing more briskly elsewhere, but Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Dr. King, the Urban League and the acronyms SCLC, CORE, NAACP, SNCC and KKK were known to us.

As our train rolled through Georgia, I was fascinated by green curtains of kudzu vine and derelict cabins and junked cars along the right-of-way and the soft scrambled eggs, biscuits, gravy and grits served in the dining car. I must here confess that the prospect of cavorting with a train load of girls on a subtropical beach lined with resort hotels upholstered in pastels, palm trees and swimming pools did command serious get-to-know-them-before-we-arrive time. For five days in this exotic and un-real setting, we would explore our spiritual lives and how we might respond to the divisive world that loomed ahead.

The defining call-and-response theme of the convention, "Christ is risen / He is risen Indeed!" echoed about the hundreds of breakout groups discussing social justice, peace and scripture and at the gatherings-whole at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The center's great hall accommodated the entire mass of Lutheran teenagers for worship and to hear theologians and church leaders of different faiths including Dr. King, a Baptist minister from Atlanta who was at the center of the civil rights movement. He was a contemporary, Negro pastor named for a 16th Century priest, Martin Luther, whose public rejection of Catholic Church indulgences in Wittenberg, Germany had catalyzed the protestant reformation and the beginnings of our church. Both men were malcontents.

I was seated a bit to the right and forward center to the packed auditorium's stage, ready to hear Dr. King. His moral resonance had helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and protests against segregation like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was an author and a practitioner of peaceful, civil disobedience whose public stands led to the bombing of his family's home. Martin Luther King Jr. had not backed down. He was speechifying right there in front of me and ... I fell asleep! Yup, about 10 minutes into his address I succumbed to that ebb and flow of consciousness that we have all battled in church, synagogue and class room. I faded into a catnap – head nodding forward as his words grew faint. Applause nudged me awake for a moment but I'd nod off again.

I do not remember what Dr. King said other than what a post-convention souvenir picture book told me what he had said: something about agape - God-like love in the face of rejection – threaded his talking points. I can, however, claim redemptive credit for joining the standing ovation and attending a small, breakout discussion group with Dr. King during which I remained fully alert.

Four summers later, I and other Saint Olaf College students and more than 700 hundred counterparts (mostly from Alabama) were part of a federally funded, summer education program administered from Tuskegee Institute. We tutored kids in hard-pressed schools in southeastern Alabama and Birmingham and ran traveling theatrical and health care units.

Thousands of others throughout the south were working to register voters as Congress and the Johnson Administration hammered out the details of the Voter Rights Act. 1965 was volatile. Threats and arrests were made regularly. Six activists were murdered, all in Alabama. The small, mixed group of tutors with whom I worked and lived never became a headline, but we had been stalked and chased down country roads and twice kicked out of restaurants - reminders of what could happen. The unofficial bond we had with those on the Selma to Montgomery marches, at the lunch counters, on the buses, in the neighborhoods and ... with Dr. King's message, strengthened.

 

Three years later, I was sharing lunch with the Brothers of Christian Instruction in their refectory at St. Edward's Secondary School, Bukuumi in western Uganda. The remote campus was set among beautiful hills overlooking banana and coffee groves and slow flowing streams matted with papyrus. Elephants, colobus monkeys, leopards and spirits were about.

St. Edward's was staffed with teachers from Uganda, Sudan, Europe, and North America; its students spoke English but during soccer matches volleyed cheers in nine African languages.

Lunch with the Brothers on April 5, 1968 probably began with a short prayer followed by food and amiable talk of things like the price of cassava for the school kitchen, Catholic theology, campus gossip and tennis. The Brothers kept a clay court.

The drone from a shortwave radio receiver of the BBC's Africa Service that underscored our chatter was interrupted by a newsreader:

"The American black civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, has been assassinated. Dr King was shot dead in the southern US city of Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a march of sanitation workers protesting against low wages and poor working conditions. He was shot in the neck as he stood on a hotel balcony and died in hospital soon afterwards. Reverend Jesse Jackson was on the balcony with Dr. King when the single shot rang out."

I do not recall who at the table - Brother Kyemwa, LeTarte, Killick, Berube or Bonaventura - injected into the momentary silence a hushed and pained "Noooo. Oh noooo." We conjectured some about the future.  I told the brothers about meeting Dr. King in Miami Beach but only of his impact on the youth convention.  We prayed.

I walked to the house that I shared with Peace Corps mates Ken Fink and Frank Tyburc. A few students and fellow staffers came to share with the three Americans the sober grief. They would return to our front door in June when Robert Kennedy was gunned down.

 

Dr. Josie Johnson was the featured speaker at the Hopkins Center for the Arts Monday, January 21st for a celebration of President Obama's Second Inauguration and what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 84th birthday. The trim and smiling Minnesota civil rights elder and advocate for fair housing and employment, spoke slowly and purposefully. Josie Johnson recalled being on the Washington Mall with 200,000 others on August 28, 1963 for Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech. She reminded us that one of the dreams that resonated in King's signature address was that his own children might one day live in a nation that would judge them for their character and not their color.

In front of the small gathering in Hopkins, Johnson confessed that while working for Mr. Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, she had thought perhaps that Barack was "the child that Martin was dreaming about." She told us during Obama's first inauguration in Washington D.C., that she experienced a level of warmth, friendliness and camaraderie that "was something I never felt that I would live long enough to see."

In her measured voice, Johnson continued, "But let me share with you my friends what I also did not think that I would see. And that is the level and depth of anti [pause] black, what we loosely call racism in American society. I had no idea that it was as deep and as destructive to our forward movement as it was demonstrated after Dr. King's child [Barack Obama] who was elected, we thought, based on character and not color."

Johnson urged us to not yet think of the Twin Cities community as a colorless and equal society and to not ignore what we see every day. "Make sure," she pleaded, "that at the table where decisions and conversations are held, that we have representatives of all that our president spoke of today: people with different colors, different religious beliefs, different attitudes about gender. We must open our democracy to all people."

Dr. Josie Johnson's message, I figure, is pretty much aligned with the one Dr. King delivered in 1961 to nearly 14,000 Luther Leaguers while I fought the drowsies. It is a call that millions and millions of Americans, day by day, have since responded to with open arms. These are folks who never make the news – neighbors whom we and our children regularly meet during the ordinary and quiet course of our lives. On Inauguration Monday, that message was re-charged by President Barack Obama at the Capitol and by Dr. Rosie Johnson on a stage in Hopkins, Minnesota.

 

Earlier that same day Republicans in the Virginia State Senate passed a bill (on a 20-19 vote) to redraw state senate districts. Their stealth action was timed for the planned absence of State Senator Henry Marsh, a civil rights champion and Democrat. Marsh was in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration.

If signed into law, according to a Washington Post article, the new map would create an additional majority-black district but would also disperse the black vote in other districts, making at least eight of them more heavily Republican. In other words, a minority will have mugged Virginia's majority and a plan by right wing operatives and right wing corporate power to control the national Electoral College by gerrymandering will be advanced.

Similar right wing initiatives are operating in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other Midwestern states. TalkingPointsMemo.com editor John Marshall writes in his blog that if the Virginia plan had been in place in just a few more Democrat leaning states, Mitt Romney would have been elected president even though he lost by more than 5 million votes. Remember Al Gore in 2000?

The Minnesota voter ID constitutional ballot question in November was part of another ongoing right wing plan to marginalize black, Hispanic and lower income voters. It failed here but not elsewhere.

As Barack Obama begins his second term, we see greater gaps between the few rich and the rest of us, between the education for their children and our children, between young white suburban couples and arrivals from our urban cores and overseas. We've also seen the return of civil disobedience with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street and their now uncertain progressions. We've seen ongoing fears of Islam by numbers of Christians and Jews who seem to live in opaque cocoons. We've seen more than 1500 gun deaths in the United States since 20 primary school kids and 6 staff members were cut down by a single shooter in Newtown, Connecticut.

We hear no reference at the Minnesota State Capitol or in Washington to Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. except on memorial anniversaries.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "And so it goes", Josie Johnson warns, "Please don't ignore what we see every day."

 

POSTSCRIPT

Dr. King's appearance at the Miami Beach youth convention back in 1961 may never have happened if one David Brown had not exercised the kind of day-by-day diligence that Josie Johnson finds critical. The Reverend Dr. L. David Brown, as Youth Director for the American Lutheran Church (ALC), had recruited Dr. King to speak. Brown had met Coretta Scott King at a White House meeting. She later helped Brown to recruit her husband for the Luther League Convention. Some ALC officials did not want to tempt controversy with King as a convention speaker and Brown is said to have received more than 600 letter requests to "dis-invite" the civil rights leader. Brown kept on task, but then King unexpectedly cancelled citing a calendar conflict. To get King back on board, Brown flew to Atlanta, walking the last miles by foot to Ebenezer Baptist Church, King's parish. The cab drivers he had hailed claimed not knowing the location of the church. Mrs. King again helped Brown by re-convincing her husband to attend the convention.

I was surprised to find a short, 16 mm film segment of King's Luther League Convention speech on YouTube. The clip, introduced by Rev. Brown, is stylistically typical of the stiff, institutional films of the 1950s but is none-the-less interesting. Link - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL-NDERlX_M

 

ACRONYMNS

CORE – Congress of Racial Equality

NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

SCLC - Southern Christian Leadership Conference

SNCC – Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee

KKK – Ku Klux Klan

 

REFERENCES

BBC Radio World Service, news bulletin, "King Assassination," 4/5/1968, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/4/newsid_2453000/2453987.stm

Note: Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on 4/4/1968 when the calendar date in Uganda had turned to 4/5/1968.

Flater, Pastor Arnold, "Brown King.wmv," Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Dubuque, Iowa. 6/23/2011. Posted on YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL-NDERlX_M

Lutz, Charles, editor; Mike Freeman, A. Stebulis, photographers, Memories of Miami, American Lutheran Church, 1961.

Marshall, John, "This is a Big Deal," Talking Points Memo.com, 1/23/2013 - http://talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2013/01/this_is_a_big_big_deal.php?ref=fpblg

News Service, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "L. David Brown, Former Bishop of ELCA Northeastern Iowa Synod, Dies," 4/12/2011 - http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Communication-Services/News/Releases.aspx?a=4740

Slate, "How many people have been killed by guns since Newtown?"February 2, 1013. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html

Tokheim, Russell, "How a Lutheran pastor got Martin Luther King to Miami Beach," Metro Lutheran, 1/2/2005 - http://metrolutheran.org/2003/01/how-a-lutheran-pastor-got-martin-luther-king-to-miami-beach/

Ullestad, The Rev. Dr. Stephen, Bishop's Report 2011, Synod Assembly, Northeastern Iowa Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - http://www.neiasynod.org/synod_news/pdf/Bishop%20Report%202011.pdf

Vozella, Laura, "VA House delays action on redistricting," The Washinton Post, 1/29/2013. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-01-29/local/36608741_1_senate-republicans-senate-districts-house-delays-action

  • Interesting details about MLK,Jr at the massive 1961 Lutheran Youth Convention in Miami. It was neat to learn, a few years ago, that the podium was shared by my dad, Rev. Dr. Dar Roa. Peace - by Mark Røa on Mon, 01/20/2014 - 6:23pm

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I Was There

Hi, I was one of those " . . . wholesome, squeaky clean" teenagers (from Iowa) in attendance at that first Luther League Convention.  Thanks for stirring my memories with your article.  Like you, I also have thought of that convention in relation to the political emergence of our President.  I pictured others from that long-ago convention volunteering, as I did, to get this great man elected and re-elected.  

Dr. King's speech was the most moving and important part of that convention.  I vividly remember the long and thunderous standing ovation following Dr. King's speech.  

I also share your view of recent Republican anti-democratic moves to supress the votes of minorities and the unrest brought on by huge inequities in the distribution of wealth in our nation.  

For every dollar the richest 1% earned in 1980, they've added three more dollars. The poorest 90% have added ONE CENT.

The richest million families have not worked three times (let alone 300 times) harder than the other 99 million families.

The richest 10% own 80% of the stock market, providing billions in "unearned income" that is taxed at less than half the rate of income earned through real work. Members of the richest million families may have actually worked LESS than members of the other 99 million families.

A number of individuals have had one-year incomes over a billion dollars, enough to pay the salaries of 25,000 teachers or health care workers or emergency responders. It's questionable whether a guy who makes a billion betting on a mortgage collapse is worth even one teacher or health care worker or emergency responder.

Next is the woeful state of tax collections on the people making most of the money. Mitt Romney pays 15%, Warren Buffett 17.4%. The richest 400 Americans, 16.6%. The whole top 1% (a million families) paid less than 23% in 2006.

Average Americans pay more than that. Studies show that when state and local taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and excise taxes are tallied up, low-income people can be paying a higher percentage of taxes than the rich, perhaps up to 40% of their incomes.

Average Americans are also paying more than corporations. For every dollar of workers' payroll tax paid in the 1950s, corporations paid three dollars. Now it's 16 cents.

And so it goes.  But does it have to?