The Rev. William Barber used a cane to hold himself as he walked onto the pulpit at Mississippi Boulevard Baptist Church Oct. 16. The Rev. Bernice King used the memory of her father and mother to hold herself as she walked on the stage at the Freedom Awards hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum Thursday night.
Both are black preachers. Both are involved, engaged and leaders in the modern freedom struggle. One man. The other woman. Both as brown as a black grandma’s caramel candy kept at the bottom of her purse.
Barber launched Moral Mondays in 2013, a clergy-led national social justice movement that recently expanded to Memphis. He also introduced the Poor People’s campaign, a redux of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s focus on poverty before his assassination. Last week, the sanctuary at Mississippi Boulevard was full of black and brown folks with a few white allies. As he stood to speak, Barber’s spine was bent for a reason: He suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic condition he’s had since his 20s. He has to use a walker or a cane.
His disability does not reduce his gravitas.
“Memphis cannot continue to be known as a place of King’s death,” Barber said. “Where there’s a crucifixion, there must be a resurrection.”
Barber dropped knowledge reiterating poverty statistics in Memphis, and addressing environmental injustice, lack of education funding for marginalized communities and white supremacy. He invoked Amos 5:24 and also used in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
“No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The sanctuary loved it. They stood with distorted faces and tight eyes, confirming Barber was hitting on some drum in their soul. Women screamed and pointed as Barber’s preachy voice elevated, arousing a raspy vibrato in his throat.
Call and response: It’s the way to respond in black church. It’s also called “witnessing,” a sign of relief when the messenger speaks to the pain of the people, the frustrations of the flock, the fatigue of the weary. As audience members shook their heads in recognition, Barber was “in the house,” as church folk might say. He tarried until the spirit of God visited the sanctuary, turning an ear to the cries of the crowd.
Three days later, there was a resurrection, and Bernice King rolled the stone away. The daughter of Martin and Coretta Scott King accepted her award at the Orpheum Theatre, half a mile from the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, cut down in his prime on a prophetic mission.
“I am overwhelmed that the location where my father was taken from us has given something back to me,” Bernice King said.
Her speech or arguably, sermon, was not one for the typical celebratory MLK breakfast meeting in a nondescript banquet hall. King spoke of a legacy of hypocrisy on behalf of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and National Urban League that turned their backs on her father as he protested the Vietnam War and the violence of poverty, “which to this day this nation still refuses to deal with.”
Curiously, while the theater was full of black and brown folks, and white allies, every award presenter was white, including representatives of FedEx, International Paper and First Tennessee.
King took her time in the spotlight to set the record straight about her mother, noting her father was able to become the most loved person in America because of her mother’s efforts to spotlight and finish his work.
The crowd cheered for Coretta.
She called out complacency after the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, and invoked her mother who said “every generation is born into the freedom struggle and must make a contribution to it, no matter who is in the White House.”
Yet, Bernice King admitted while she adopted her father’s principle of nonviolence, she endures a long struggle with overcoming the hate she has often felt for white people. She thanked God for working on her heart.
King’s honesty was pure and appreciated, as the crowd cheered when she stared into the camera, a slight raise in her brow.
Forgiveness was a burden for her, and it was heavy.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.