Leturgey Musings and Goings On

These are some of my writings...from events going on in the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance and elsewhere, to observations from the rest of my decidely unformulaic life.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Martin Luther King Jr. Remembered In Pittsburgh

[The following was printed as the Cover Story in The Front Weekly, dated 2/14/05]

by Tom Leturgey

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked into the Crawford Grill atop the bustling Hill District in late summer 1958, people were understandably excited. He had only been a national figure for about two years, but the late twenty-something King had already made a lasting impression.

During that trailblazing trip to Pittsburgh two years into the modern Civil Rights movement, Dr. King also spoke at the Central Baptist Church. It was at that church where Vera White first heard Dr. King preach live.
"It was just at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement," said White. "We had two sermons (where King spoke) and they were packed."

Nearly 2,000 people crowded into the church at the corner of Fitzpatrick and Wiley Avenues on a beautiful Sunday morning. White heard most of his homily while sitting on steps under a gigantic banner welcoming King’s visit, outside the church. As an usher (White continues to sit on the church’s usher board to this day and sings in the choir), she made sure others had better seats for the visit. Her three children—Marsha, Carol and Charles—sat in a pew together and didn’t make a peep, but that wasn’t out of the ordinary for the well-behaved family.

"He was a dynamic speaker," she said. "He had a lot of charisma."

Dr. King’s voice was "not monotone," White said. "It was a voice that got your attention. [You] wouldn’t have gone to sleep. What he had to say, you listened."

The guest speaker didn’t filibuster while in Pittsburgh. White remembers a normal 35-40 service. "That was before the church had TV broadcasts," she notes. "We televise our services now."

White, 76, was about the same age as the Atlanta, Georgia native when he came to speak nearly four decades ago. "He was already very well known," she said.

King’s star as a prominent African American leader had been climbing rapidly since 1956. He was a highly regarded and intelligent (King graduated from high school at age 15) Baptist Minister in Montgomery, Alabama when then-unknown 42-year-old seamstress Rosa Parks triggered the civil rights movement by refusing to move from a seat in the front of a public bus.

When he was in Pittsburgh, he was still the young idealist, stressing the importance to faith, family and self-empowerment..

Dr. King’s was formulating his theory of "somebodiness," which symbolized the celebration of human worth and the conquest of subjugation. The ideology, which was partially inspired by Gandhi, was designed to give African American and poor people of all colors hope, plus and a sense of dignity. According to the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation, his philosophy of nonviolent direct action (i.e. the 381-day boycott of Montgomery’s bus lines), and his strategies for rational and non-destructive social change, galvanized the conscience of this nation and reordered its priorities. His wisdom, his words, his actions, his commitment, and his dream for a new way of life are intertwined with the American experience.

Because of his philosophy and advocacy for non-violence to solve problems, writers for Time magazine and the New York Times, among others, profiled Dr. King and anchors invited him to be on TV’s Meet the Press.
Dr. King had a few Pittsburgh contacts. Most prominent was Cornell Talley, pastor of Central Baptist Church. Talley and Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. had gone to college together and had remained close. Talley, it should be noted, was a pastor for more than 50 years, until his unexpected death in 1989. It’s believed that Talley asked King to speak at the churches in Pittsburgh that year.

To this day, parishioners at Central Baptist speak emphatically and freely share pictures from King’s visit. While White says that she’s forgotten a lot of details about that time, she will quickly spout minutiae about the doctor’s life and ambitions. It’s obvious that many lives were affected that day in the Hill District and beyond.
Protesters were on hand for many of King’s rallies in the South; however, none were on display when he spoke here. The event was widely publicized in Pittsburgh daily newspapers.

Pictures from that era show a handsome, youthful-looking King, oftentimes with his equally photogenic wife Coretta Scott King (she and the couple’s children Yolanda and infant Martin III—Dexter and Bernice had not yet been born—didn’t make that trip to Pittsburgh). Asked if she or her friends found the married Dr. King attractive, White chuckled and said, "I had more respect for him than that."

White didn’t get a chance to speak with or even shake hands with Dr. King at the church, she does remember him as approachable.

"To me, he seemed to have warmth," the Academy Heights resident said. "He seemed like you were able to walk up and talk to him." She also remembered seeing him carry on conversations with parishioners.

In 1958, Dr. King was involved in many projects. He had just founded and named president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference a year earlier and was writing the first of his six books (a second, "A Measure of A Man" a collection of sermons, would be released in 1959). In addition, he was promoting a Crusade for Citizenship, a movement that was designed to register five million southern black voters by 1960.

In Jean Darby’s 1990 King biography, she recounts some of a speech given in Miami, Florida, around the same time King visited Pittsburgh. Due to the timeline and subject matter, at least some of it must have been the same: "Let us make our intentions clear. We must and will be free. We want or freedom now. We do not want freedom fed to us in a teaspoon. Under God we were born free. Misguided men robbed us from our freedom. We want it back."

He went on to say, "Remember the words of Jesus. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword. We must meet our white brothers with love."

In another 1958 speech, King said, "In our struggle against racial segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, I came to see at a very early stage that a synthesis of Gandhi's method of nonviolence and the Christian ethic of love is the best weapon available to Negroes for this struggle for freedom and human dignity. It may well be that the Gandhian approach will bring about a solution to the race problem in America. His spirit is a continual reminder to oppressed people that it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence."

As King was touring the eastern half of the U.S. to promote different agendas, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County were making their own strides toward the future. In 1958 county officials commissioned the Glenwood Bridge which would soon span the Monongahela River; meanwhile, the Mellon Family Foundation committed $3 million for 3,650 that would later become the county park system.

That same year, the federal government gave city officials $15 million to redevelop East Liberty and U.S. Steel announced that it would curtail production at the Edgar Thompson Works. However, that was only a hiccup to the steel industry, as Jones and Laughlin Mill expanded its production.

Around that same time, Dr. King and three other civil rights activists went to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to convince President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support their initiatives. King had tried for more than a year to schedule the meeting before it was finally set. He was reportedly disappointed with the outcome of that meeting.

In September of that year he was arrested in a Montgomery courtroom during a confrontation with a courtroom guard. He was found guilty and agreed to go to jail instead of paying the $10 fine, but was released when the police commissioner—fearing King would use the event for publicity—paid the fine himself.
King’s frantic year of activism concluded abruptly on September 20 when a 42-year-old woman historians have described as "criminally insane" or "emotionally disturbed," Izola Curry, stabbed Dr. King in the chest with a letter opener during a book signing in Harlem, New York. Doctors had to remove two ribs to dislodge the weapon. King was on tour promoting that first book, "Stride Toward Freedom."

History shows that around the time he was in Pittsburgh, Dr. King was looking to move away from Montgomery, where his home was damaged by a bomb in 1956. A part of the porch was destroyed and windows smashed in the blast (another, unexploded devise was found under the same porch a year later). He had been pastor of Dexter Avenue Church from 1954 to 1959. He ultimately decided to move to back to his hometown of Atlanta a year after his Pittsburgh appearance to be closer to his family. He directed the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for a year before becoming co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, alongside his father.

Also in 1959, King traveled abroad to visit Gandhi, who was one of his idols.

Dr. King would return to Pittsburgh a few years later for the Freedom March at Forbes Field. White remembers celebrities like singer Harry Bellafonte that were along for the march. By the time of the Freedom March, Rev. Talley had moved on to his next church in Detroit, so Dr. King marched with other friends he made while in Pittsburgh.

Five years after visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, Dr. King gave his famous "I have a Dream" speech (which included the line, "Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania") and in 1964, at age 35, he was the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. King in 1968 at age 39 while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His monumental achievements all occurred during a span of only 13 years.

If he had lived, King would have been 76 and still young enough to be on the national stage. It would have been interesting to see what to see what he would have done next, and how it would have affected Pittsburgh and the entire nation. According to a Washington Post article reflecting on his death in 1998, some said Dr. King was becoming more radical. Others liked to remember his earlier victories.

"What he said made a lot of sense," said White of King’s early Pittsburgh stop. "Do the best your can do. If that meant be the best street sweeper, than be the best street sweeper."

White agrees with some of the sentiments made by comedian Bill Cosby, who blasted some in the African American community for underachieving and blaming others for their woes. "I feel the same way," she said. "It’s good common sense. [Good people] starts with a good family."
White doesn’t believe Dr. King would have gone on to be the first African American President of the United

States (some historians think he would have been asked to run if he had lived a while longer), but she thinks he would have remained an important figure in the country.

"I don’t even know if he would have wanted [to run for President]," White continued (political insiders say there were slight whispers of a Robert Kennedy/King ticket). "But he would want you to vote in every election."

Some may debate the lasting effects of King’s efforts. In today’s fast-paced media-influenced society, not much attention is given to national figures who are still in their 20’s, aside from celebrity singers, actors and professional athletes. Barack Obama, the U.S. Senator from Illinois who practically stole the show that was last year’s Democratic National Convention with a dynamic keynote address, and is considered one of the up-and-coming young African American leaders, is 43.

In Pittsburgh and around the country each January, Dr. King’s legacy is observed or celebrated in many ways on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Annually, the local Salvation Army holds an event to feed the hungry and homeless. This year, the Salvation Army hosted a chili lunch at its Youth Program Hall on Third Avenue, downtown. Primanti Brother Restaurant on Cherry Way donated food for the event and volunteers from Robert Morris University’s "America’s Promise" group served food.

Citizens Bank, along with the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the New Pittsburgh Courier also sponsored a Martin Luther King Jr. essay writing contest for city school students. Essays on the topic "What Martin Luther King Jr. did to make us better citizens," will be judged by Citizens Bank employees. The panel will select six elementary, six middle school, and six high school students for the prizes. Winners will be announced the week of March 18.

Upon winning, the 18 winners will go to Washington, D.C. on April 18 and 19 and take part in an "African American Heritage" guided tour.

"The messages of peace, harmony and self-reliance that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached decades ago ring true today," said John Thompson, former Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent. "This educational exercise will help our students focus on values that will reap rewards well beyond the classroom."

Some believe that Dr. King’s message has been lost in the 37 years since his death. They believe that his drive for equality in for all races has fallen short of his intentions and his emphasis on non-violence pushed aside.
Meanwhile, others point to the strides that have been taken by other prominent African Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to name two. Or that minority home ownership in the U.S. is at an all-time high (nearly 48% according to Marc Morial, president of National Urban League, as stated in a Detroit News interview in July, 2004), even though the rate for whites is still higher, at near 73%.

Another light should shine on Dr. King’s memory later this year when the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ defiance in Montgomery is celebrated.

Nevertheless, none of that mattered to the supporters at the Crawford Grill and Central Baptist Church who were simply glad to see Dr. King in Pittsburgh 47 years ago.

"Anyone who was there hasn’t forgotten about it," said White.


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