Everybody was waiting for the Lord.
Martin Luther was coming to the meeting and nobody was about to miss him. A Negro woman who looked like she spent her life getting stuck behind the fried chicken platter at the church social and doing the dirty work for the block party was having none of that nonsense Wednesday. The red rose on her crocheted hat vibrated with her determination. She informed the person beckoning her to sit at the card table and check names that she had come to hear Reverend King, and then walked on by.
She passed through a door decorated with leaning men. The huge man who was acting as bouncer-in-reverse had been unsuccessful in getting the men to come in and sit down. Despite his frantic signaling that seats were available, none of them wanted to give up the chance to be the first to see the coming of the Lord.
On the wooden chairs set up around the room, women in $2 house dresses and beads were turned at a 30-degree angle to watch the door. Using programs folded accordion style instead of pastel fans with pictures of Christ, they managed to turn the chandelier ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt into a Baptist Church.
Not all the faces were black, some were Puerto Rican. Few were white. Emptying bedpans is not a high-priority white job. And all the people in the room were hospital workers.
The official reason for the gathering of the 800 was a meeting of delegates of Local 1199 of the Drug and National Employees Union. In between taking turns checking the hall to see if the Reverend had arrived, they busied themselves with union business and watched a documentary in which they starred.
The film was greeted with the jokes and applause of a home movie. Only home in this case was Harlem. Mrs. Cameron, the movie queen for the day, strolled past bars on 127th Street, past roach-crawling rat-infested tenements, past gutters filled with garbage and vomit, and explained how the union had improved her life.
Mrs. Cameron wasn’t the only star. A black Santa and Robert Kennedy were greeted with great enthusiasm both in the film and by the audience. Santa won his supporters by being black and by giving out presents. Kennedy, as usual, didn’t have to do anything to wrap up the vote.
The Lord appeared for the first time — on film. There was a great burst of applause. The applause was just as loud, but accompanied by laughter, when Malcolm-in-shades flashed onto the screen.
The difference was not in affection, but in conception. King is the father you depend on and try to live up to. Malcolm is the brother you pound on the back and take to a crap game around the corner.
At a point between flashes of union members singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and shots of their demonstrating with the Southern Leadership Conference, the men standing in the doorway made a dash for the outer corridor. He was there. The image had been made flesh.
By the time the men reached the corridor, the reporters who had been perching like vultures on the mezzanine railing had already begun to circle the Reverend Martin Luther King with their microphones. They were hard at work doing the job they do best — playing one black group off against another.
“How come, Dr. King,” one of the newsmen asked, “the black nationalists weren’t invited to the unity meeting that set Cleveland up as the target city for the summer?”
“The meeting was for civil rights organizations,” Dr. King said. Then, healing the situation, he added, “That does not mean we won’t work with the nationalists and the Muslims in Cleveland. We have already met with them and have a fine relationship.”
“Muhammed didn’t come to the mountain?” the newsman asked, still trying to bait him. “No, not this time,” King replied. Not even bad jokes ruffled his calm.
At this point, King’s disciples began hustling him toward a private room. He was almost invisible in the center of the group. People seeing him for the first time standing among others were surprised that the Lord was such a little man.
Once word was out that he had reached the hall, no one even pretended to watch the film. There was a sense of great excitement, but muted. And when the door opened, and he came through, a great rush of people jumped to their feet clapping away. The “Hallelujah Chorus” would have been appropriate to the mood of the moment as would “Lord, Hold My Hand While I Run This Race.”
He made his way with imposing solemnity to the center of the stage. The deep voice rolled out over the assembly. Its familiar cadence soared — evoking the shared experiences of his people, giving them a sense of identity, restoring for a while a feeling of wholeness. This was the communion he supplied and they sought.
What he said was not important. It was the man who lent weight to the words. It was his presence felt, his integrity sensed. Such a man could make the telephone book seem like the gospel.
Still, what he said wasn’t unimportant. He spoke of the nation’s problems of race and poverty, problems that are gigantic in scale and chaotic in detail. He noted that the friends who were with the Negroes in Selma are with them no longer. He defined black power as the ability to make General Motors and Washington say “yes” when they want to say “no.” He spoke of the war in the Mideast. He defended Israel’s right to exist and he proposed a Marshall Plan for the Arabs to ease the tension among the have-nots.
Then, moving to the heart of his speech, he spoke of Vietnam — of the unjust war:
“Who appointed this country divine agent to the world?” he asked. “Who gave it the arrogance to try to fix up another country when it hasn’t put its own house in order? How can it expect its black soldiers to fight in brutal solidarity with whites in Vietnam and then come home and not be able to live on the same block with them?… Come home to Alabama and not even be able to be buried in the same cemetery with them?”
After every question, the audience responded. It was not just the church ladies: It was the young blacks standing along the aisles. It was the tough young kids who are one step from the street corners of Harlem — the kids who he had been least able to reach. They were the ones who were applauding the loudest and shouting “Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!” when he asked, “How come this country only worries about Vietnam? How come it doesn’t use its power against South Africa or Rhodesia?” And they shouted again when he asked, “How come this mainly white country doesn’t stop bombing colored people?”
He stopped the questions. He started to unravel the thread of continuity of his convictions:
“There has been a whole lot of applauding in this country. People and the newspapers applauded me in Montgomery when Negroes were killed and I urged people to be non-violent. They applauded me in Birmingham when Negroes were gassed and I urged people to be non-violent against Bull Connor. They applauded me in Philadelphia after the bodies of the three were found and I urged people to be non-violent against Sheriff Rainey. Yet they damn me now when I urge people to be non-violent against little children in Vietnam.
“Even tonight, a man came up to me and said that my talking against the war had hurt my leadership. He urged me to pull back from my position.
“My answer to him was: ‘Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine my position by polls nor by what is safe or politic or popular, but by what is right. As for hurting civil rights by my position, the war has already done more to hurt civil rights than I could ever do by talking against Vietnam.’
“Despite the dismal picture both in and out of the country, the Lord has not been beaten down,” he assured them. “I have not lost faith. We have survived slavery. No war and no backlash is going to turn us around.”
And the people said, “Amen.”
“We shall overcome. No lie can live forever.”
And the people said, “Amen.”
“We shall overcome. This faith I have hewn out of our mountain of despair. We shall overcome.”
And, as he spoke, you knew he did believe. And so did the people. If he had asked them to walk on water, they would have. When he finished, they rushed forward to touch him, to shake his hand, to grab hold of a piece of his faith that would last them at least until they got back to 127th Street. ❖
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 14, 2023