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‘We have gone back to business as usual’


On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Stated Clerk recalls Poor People’s Campaign, other King legacies

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last weeks on Earth in 1968 fighting to gain traction for the Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II reminded a sellout crowd Monday attending the Hope Breakfast commemorating King’s life and legacy.

But even a cursory glance of the nation’s big cities confirms that “we have gone back to business as usual all over this nation,” said Nelson, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and keynoter for the event, held at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. Government at levels including the White House have used “benign neglect over what it means to govern fairly and look out for all people,” Nelson said, “not just the wealthy, not just ‘our kind’ but for all people to receive the love that God intends.”

Nelson called King a 20th century prophet “who gave most of his life trying to redeem the United States of America from the harshness of racial segregation, degradation and despair.” King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, heard him despairing one night while praying how he could continue his work preaching and practicing the work of nonviolence following the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four African-American girls attending Sunday school. God “came and sat” with King during that prayer, she later said, urging the civil rights champion to carry on, even though five years later he too would die a violent death.

Nelson described his own experience growing up during the late 1960s in Orangeburg, S.C., where the white owner of a bowling center refused to open his lanes to black bowlers. What soon followed was the Feb. 8, 1968 Orangeburg Massacre at what was then South Carolina State College (now University) in which highway patrol officers killed three students, one a high-schooler, and injured 27 others. The nine officers responsible for the shootings were acquitted of all charges.

Today the massacre is not well-known, partly because of the King assassination two months later. It took the state of South Carolina 30 years to acknowledge any wrongdoing, Nelson said, “after the statute of limitations had run out and most of the people involved were dead.”

Nelson and fellow speaker Theresa Reno-Weber, the president and CEO of Metro United Way in Louisville, hailed last week’s launch of Lean Into Louisville, an initiative by Mayor Greg Fischer and others to confront and examine the history of discrimination and inequality.

However, Nelson said, “none of this is enough” until widespread poverty is eliminated and people’s welfare is commonplace. Current funding inadequacies, he said, “have put public education at peril.”

If we in the 21st century “carry forth the mantle that Dr. King illuminated,” Nelson said, our children will “not only sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ but ‘We Have Overcome.’”

Nelson concluded his rousing speech with this story: A young race car driver in a certain town challenged an old-timer, a legend in auto racing, to a race. At first the veteran racer was reluctant, but eventually agreed to the race, fixing up his old racing car as best he could.

On the day of the race, the young driver and his impressive car built up an early lead, but in the end it was the veteran racer who took the checkered flag.

“I left you in the dust. How’d you win that race?” the young driver asked.

“You may have a speedy car,” the older racer replied, “but I know the road.”

“We know the road,” Nelson said to applause and a standing ovation. “Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come. Because we know the road, let us get off our blessed assurances to transform this city, this nation and this world. Thanks be to God.”

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