The MLK Memorial Service: There is more to be done

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Acclaimed author Dr. Ray Arsenault was the keynote speaker at the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church Sun., Jan. 18 for a Day of Service lecture series presented by The St. Petersburg Interfaith Association.

Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern History at USF St. Pete, is the author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” The 2006 work explores how a group of determined volunteers —African American and white —joined together to defy Jim Crow statutes in buses and terminals in their quest for racial equality.

His book provided much of the basis for a 2011 PBS documentary of the same name. Arsenault even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in an episode devoted to the Freedom Riders.

“I can’t help but think that 50 years ago this gathering would have been illegal,” Arsenault said in his opening remarks. “We’d all be handcuffed and taken to off to jail for consorting with each other.”

The author recalled his time as a research assistant in the late 1960s at Princeton for history professor Sheldon Hackney, who was married to Lucy Durr, the daughter of Rosa Parks’ attorney, Clifford Durr. It was Clifford Durr, Arsenault pointed out, who bailed Parks out of jail after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in December 1955.

Arsenault explained that working under Hackney, a man who was deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights, was the beginning of a new chapter of his life.

“Working for him opened up a new and previously-hidden world to me,” Arsenault said, “A world of black and white activists dedicated to bringing racial equality and social justice to America, and creating what they and Dr. King called the ‘Beloved Community.’”

Though Arsenault had lived most of his life in the South, he was at Princeton, N.J. in April, 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated.

“I can still remember the utter shock and sadness and fear when I heard the news that he had been murdered, that he was gone,” he recalled. “I remember wondering, ‘What will become of us now? What will become of the nation that is just beginning to live up to its professed ideals of liberty and justice for all?’”

In the years that followed, Dr. King has become a national icon, Arsenault said, as there has been a federal holiday established on his birthday and even a monument to him in Washington. Yet in the process of turning him into national hero we may have “robbed him of the deepest meanings of his life,” he said.

“Every year the nation pays tribute with parades to a man that was saintly and safe,” Arsenault attested. “As a historian that’s spent years on the Civil Rights Movement, I’m here to tell you that Dr. King may have been saintly, but he was never safe,” adding, “I think we need to remember him for what he really was: a nonviolent revolutionary who dreamed of transforming the nation and the world.”

Arsenault said Dr. King was determined to turn back what the reverend called the quadruple threat of evil: racism, poverty, materialism and militarism. Calling Dr. King a man with “fire in his belly,” Arsenault said we should remember the “radical” King—”radical in the best sense of that term.”

Showing slides during his lecture of various people and places integral to the Civil Rights Movement—including the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., (site of the infamous 1963 racially-motivated bombing that killed four African-American girls) and various members of the Freedom Riders—Arsenault aimed to deliver a message of hope and empowerment by paying tribute to select friends and disciples of Dr. King, some of whom Arsenault personally knew.

“Most of them are still alive,” Arsenault said, “out there fighting nonviolently for justice.” He then quipped: “They’re troublemakers of the best kind.”

This tribute included former Freedom Riders such as Congressman John Lewis, the Rev. Bernard Lafayette, the Rev. Ben Cox and Ed Blankenheim.

“Time and again he’s been voted by his colleagues as the most admired member of Congress,” Arsenault said of Lewis, “which is quite extraordinary because he has powerful beliefs. He’s no shrinking violet,” adding that Lewis had been arrested many times as an activist.

Lewis appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and sat directly next to Elwin Wilson, a former Klansman who had beaten Lewis and other African Americans during a Freedom Rides melee in the 1960s. During a heartfelt moment in the show, Lewis accepted Wilson’s apology and said of Wilson: “He’s the first and only person who’s ever apologized to me,” exemplifying the spirit of forgiveness.

Tampa native Rev. Bernard Lafayette was another thoroughly admirable disciple of Dr. King, Arsenault said, and a roommate of John Lewis roommate at one time.

“It was Lafayette who started the first voting rights project in Selma in 1963,” the professor said, a monumental task in those days. He also expressed his disappointment in the film Selma in that Lafayette was left out.

He added that Cox organized the first sit-in at a high school, in High Point, N.C., and noted that the late Blankenheim, “a white carpenter from Arizona who for some reason decided he had to become a Freedom Rider,” was active in the fight for social rights up to the end of his life.  Even as a wheelchair- bound septuagenarian, Blankenheim chained himself to a bus in San Francisco to force transit authorities to accommodate people with disabilities, Arsenault explained.

Arsenault also lauded the accomplishments of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who “invited, demanded, cajoled that Dr. King to come to Birmingham in 1963” and educator Odessa Woolfolk, who Arsenault called the “the driving force behind the creation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.”

In closing, Arsenault praised John Hope Franklin, calling him the “original Cornel West,” adding that the late Franklin is the historian “who all but invented the field of African-American history.”

Franklin, best known for his seminal 1947 work “From Slavery to Freedom” that has sold millions of copies, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor in 1995. Passing away in March of 2009 at 94, Lewis lived just long enough to see Barack Obama sworn in the country’s first African American president, Arsenault said.

“He’s gone like Dr. King, but his legacy lives on in his books and in the many lives he touched,” Arsenault said, adding, “as he’d like to say, ‘If we don’t know where we’ve been, there’s little or no hope of finding our way to where we’d like to be.’  And this truth, which is essentially saying that knowledge is power, is the lesson that I want to stress for our children and grandchildren, who by the grace of God, will be the freedom fighters of the future.”

The event also featured the winner of the 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Contest, Jason Charos, delivering his work that took the top prize, “The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — There Is More To Be Done.” Charos received a standing ovation for his profound thoughts.

Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin were on hand to deliver their personal greetings and reflections, while St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway offered a call to unity.

“August 1963, Dr. King gave his famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’” Holloway proclaimed. “Now I have a dream that I want to share with you. I dream that we can get our young people back on track,” adding that it takes a community-wide effort to keep young people from making mistakes that can land them in prison, and stressed the necessity of generations coming together to achieve this end.

“We always say it takes a village to raise a child,” the Chief observed. “I think it’s time for our village to wake up and start raising our kids!”

The interfaith event was marked by a variety of prayers and choral presentations. Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El blew the shofar, a traditional Jewish instrument that dates back 5,000 years; Mikal Hanee of the Tampa Bay Islamic Community gave a call to worship, a prayer sung before every congregational prayer service in the Muslim tradition and Sepideh Eskandari of the Baha’i Community of St. Pete also offered an opening prayer.

The Alumni Singers, the Ismaili Community Council for Florida Choir, the Love First Christian Center Choir and Christ Gospel Mass Choir provided uplifting choral presentations.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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