What Memphis Reminded Me

What Memphis Reminded Me

Yesterday brought back strong memories. I can still see the face of the television newscaster fighting back tears and announcing, “Dr. Martin Luther King is dead.” Just 10.5 miles from my home in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, April 4, 1968.

50 years later, I’m standing about 300 yards from the Lorraine Motel balcony where he was shot. Thousands of us have returned to that spot to remember that giant and that day. The speakers were amazing. Jesse Jackson, James Lawson, Sister Peace, William Barber and others walked us through the history of a civil rights movement that changed this nation. They pushed us toward the ballot box to continue the fight for change.

At 6:01 PM the bells began to toll and the crowd hushed. They recognized that at that very moment 50 years ago a shot rang out and King crumbled on the balcony. Moments later the mood changed as Al Green sang songs that lifted our spirits and launched us from that place, determined to keep the dream alive.

I announced that this week’s blog title would be, “ What Happened to My Hymns?” I’ll get to that next week. Being in that historic gathering yesterday in Memphis reminded me of a number of things. Some important. Some, not so much. Here are a few.

There is nothing quite like the Black Church

There was one thing that most of the civil rights leaders past and present had in common. They were children of the black church. Even the ceremony itself reminded me of the magic of that institution. At times like a lecture. At times like a revival.  The music, the preachers, the fraternities, the speeches, the emotion, community, the choirs. Then and now there’s nothing quite like it.

We don’t realize how good the Aeolians are!

Where did that come from? Well, I was listening to the national HBCU mass choir sing, “Beams of Heaven” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and it occurred to me that I was missing something.  What was it?  The Aeolians. The HBCU mass choir was fine and twice the size, but not even close!  It reminded me again why the Oakwood University Aeolians are the 2017 Choir of the World. I’m afraid we take them for granted.

The more things change, the more….they don’t! 

Dr. King was in Memphis in 1968 supporting city sanitation workers. They were underpaid, disrespected, and the targets of systematic racism. King died supporting workers. 50 years later, Memphis is 64% black but 88% of senior managers in the city are white. Those are plantation percentages. The problems of crime and poverty and unemployment plague the city, but the downtown area is a growing shrine to gentrification. There’s work to do.

Movements are messy, and leaders are flawed. 

King was no choir boy. The leaders of the civil rights movement- male and female- were a mixed bag of energy, ideas, courage, and cowardice.  They were deeply flawed, but like the early Christian church they turned their world upside down. If you’re looking for a perfect movement, you’ll be waiting.

Friends come in all colors 

The bells tolled at 6:01 pm. It was the most important moment of the rally yesterday. Ironically, the speaker at that time was not a black pastor or politician, but a white Roman Catholic priest, Michael Pflegar. He has been an important player in the black community for years in Chicago. He wasn’t a token, he earned his spot.

The crowd began to boo when the mayor of Memphis and governor of Tennessee-both white- began to speak.  On the surface it seemed like a racial statement. But the jeers turned immediately to cheers when congressman Steve Cohen followed them. He has been a warrior of a representative for the black community-and he is white. You might not want to identify the friends or enemies of a movement by the color of their skin.

Our ancestors did more with less 

I was struck by the fact that most of the “builders” on the platform were in their golden years. They were recognized for the colleges, businesses, fraternities, and service organizations they had sacrificed to build. I’m afraid that sacrifice is a profanity to many in my world. We usually worship in churches and study in universities that our parents and grandparents built at great sacrifice. Of course, there is the problem of debt and the declining dollar. But the greater problem is a black community that is at times all talk and no action.

The power for change is still the power of God 

To the natural eye, the answers to the problems in the black community are obvious: economic investment, quality education, voter registration, etc. Those are powerful and legitimate answers. But James Lawson and the senior statesmen of the movement reminded us yesterday, that while we are pursuing those legitimate resources, the real answer comes, “not by might, nor by power” but by God’s spirit and power. Sound silly? I’d rather do it the way King did it than the way the scoffers and complainers aren’t doing it!

So those are a few of my thoughts about King and the movement. What do you think?

The Sharpton I Know

The Sharpton I Know

As soon as I saw the flyer I knew there would be a fight. “Special Worship Experience with Carlton Byrd. Special Guest- Al Sharpton.” It was a much-needed community rally sponsored by the Oakwood University church. Dr. Byrd began the assembly with an address on unity in diversity and Sharpton followed.

By most accounts Sharpton’s message, that ranged from voting rights to immigration policy, was thoughtful and well received. But I was right. The critics were out in force. Online and in person they blasted the church and Sharpton before, during, and after the presentation.

Sharpton is the founder and director of the National Action Network. Founded in 1991, it is a major civil rights organization with chapters throughout America. From his earliest days as an activist in New York, Sharpton has always been a polarizing figure. Sharpton’s supporters hail him as a champion for the oppressed. Sharpton’s detractors blame him for deteriorating race relations in America.

But issues like police misconduct, civil rights, and civil rights leaders look different depending on who you are and where you are. As Nelson Mandela was fond of saying, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” And in early 1999, Al Sharpton and I were sitting in a Marriott hotel in Riverside, California discussing ways to calm a community that was about to explode.

On December 28, 1998, a young lady by the name of Tyisha Miller was driving her aunt’s car in Riverside, California and her tire went flat. As she waited for help in her locked car, she had a seizure. Officers were alerted, came to the locked car, and found her foaming at the mouth and shaking. She had a gun in her car for protection and the officers claimed that she reached for it when she came out of her coma. They opened fire 23 times. 12 of the bullets hit Miller- 4 in the head.

The city exploded. Long standing tensions between the minority community and law enforcement resurfaced.  I was asked by the family and religious community to lead a steering community to address the volatile issue. Months of press conferences, marches, and court cases followed. The full story is for another day, but it brings me back to the hotel room with Sharpton.

Over a two year, period, I came to know civil rights leaders from Martin King III to Jesse Jackson to Dick Gregory to the late Johnny Cochran.  Each of them was helpful, but none of them made the difference that Sharpton did. These are some of the things I came to know about him.

He’ll come when you call him

Many of the critics of Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others accuse them of being ambulance chasers and publicity hounds. The accusation is that they troll for racial and social problems and then make them worse when they show up. The reality is that most of the time both Jackson and Sharpton are invited by the immediate family to come and help.

As tragic as Tyisha Miller’s death was, it remained a fairly local issue until the family got Sharpton and his crowd involved. When he came the national media came with him and issues of police misconduct in Riverside became national news. He was hard working and very sensitive to the needs of the family. And none of his efforts cost the family or the steering committee a dime.

He might get you arrested

Even before Sharpton hit the ground in Riverside, there was talk of civil disobedience -going to jail as a form of protest. People had been marching by the thousands but the police officers who shot Tyisha Miller had still not been fired or even disciplined. The community was getting restless and dangerous. Sharpton suggested that we conduct a major march to the downtown police headquarters, block the entrance, and force our arrest. The publicity would force the city to move.

Well, I quickly found out that the clergy in Riverside was not as eager as the clergy in Birmingham and Montgomery to go to jail. Some of them reminded me that this wasn’t the 60s. Some of them reminded me that they had unpaid traffic tickets! But there I was, leading from the front. In charge and eventually in jail.

He’s not always consistent

It could have been my ears, but I thought I heard Sharpton and Dick Gregory say, “Don’t worry brothers and sisters. We’ll be the first ones in and the last ones out! We’ll be the first ones arrested and the last ones released!” That was particularly encouraging to a reluctant band of leaders, some of whom weren’t sure if they could get out of jail as easily as they could get in.

True to his word, Sharpton was the first to be arrested. I was in the next wave, about 15 minutes behind. As I walked into the holding area with my friend Robert Edwards, who did I see walking out of the holding area but Al Sharpton and Dick Gregory. It’s probably not appropriate to reveal what I thought or said, but so much for the first being last and the last being first! He’s human.

He was always courageous

The quality I respected most in Sharpton was his courage. He was absolutely fearless. Under constant attack from law enforcement. Misquoted by the media. Second guessed by even some of the victims he attempted to help. He never wavered. He came early, worked hard, and stayed late. You don’t really understand or appreciate the Sharpton’s of the world until you need their help.

Sharpton and I disagree on some significant subjects. But we need more people willing to publicly stand for what they believe. People with the courage to speak for those who can’t effectively speak for themselves. Because at some point, you might very well need someone to advocate for you. Martin Niemoller, a pastor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp put it this way.

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.