South – King SPeech 2009

Speech by Rev. Harcourt Klinefelter

As many of you already know I had the privilege of working with Martin Luther King in the last two years of his life. I knew him as my employer, my minister and friend and not only him, but also the rest of his family.

My involvement with Dr. King and the Movement began in Selma in the spring of 65 as a volunteer.  At the end of the summer I was asked to join the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC. I received an internship from Yale Divinity School.

As Assistant Director of Public Relations for SCLC my responsibilities included making the recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and sermons and then sending them to the media. Later I edited these recordings into radio programs.

Last October I went with my son Douwe to America to visit the places where I worked with Dr. Martin Luther King and to go to the fortieth reunion of my class in Yale Divinity School.

We visited the Dr. Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta where the tomb of Dr. King and his wife is next to the old Ebenezer Baptist Church. This church and his birthplace are part of the Dr. Martin Luther King National Park Museum.

Not only was there a Museum in honor of Dr. King in Atlanta but we were to find huge and very impressive museums in honor of the Movement in every city where I had worked with Dr. King.

In Selma which now looks almost like a ghost town is the Voting Rights museum. There are now huge stone monuments by Edmund Petus Bridge where in the spring of 1965 the marchers were brutally beaten on what is remembered as “Bloody Sunday”.

In fact the whole route of the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in now a national park. Along the way we drove through Lowens County where the most lynching occurred in the past.  During the Selma March, the National Guard would only let 300 hand picked marchers walk through this stretch since even they could not guarantee the safety for more.  It was here that a white mother, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed as she was ferrying marchers back to Selma after the march was over.  I had taped the telephone message we received in Montgomery from out Selma and sent this to the media that evening after the March.

As we drove on suddenly there appeared a huge modern building which stood out in great contrast to the old farms along the way. What was this? When I got close enough to read the sign I found out it was something I never expected in my wildest dreams. It was the Lowens County National Civil Rights museum. 

We went in and discovered it was too late to see the film over the Selma March. So we looked at the various exhibits. Among other things was a tent with bullet holes. This was one of the tents from a tent city erected there after the Selma March was over.

We talked with the man behind the counter. I told him about who I was and my experience with the march and my relation to Dr, King. It turned out that he was the person who organized the tent camp. We told him we were camping and I asked him if there was a camping in the vicinity. He said there was one about two miles away. He offered to guide us. After driving a half hour through dismal swamps we arrived at camping on the Alabama River. He stopped and got out of his pickup truck in front of the office. We went in to register. Douwe and I were wearing T-shirts with photos of Dr. King and Barack Obama together which I had bought in Atlanta and had worn all over the South all of the time.

On the wall behind the desk where an older white man sat was a photo of an alligator with the text, “Swim at your own risk.”  Douwe asked if this was a joke. He laughed and said it was no joke.

Not only did he treat us politely he was friendly and went out of his way to help us.

We had been sleeping in our large station wagon, but this evening we sat up the tent for the first time. By the bank of the river we felt no fear. As I lay in my bed my thoughts went back to the night on the march in Mississippi where the picture of Dr King and I was made.  On that night the slogan “Black Power” was first picked up by the Media. There were those who wanted nothing to do with non-violence and White people. Dr. King said, “Who was it who had a history of killing people and throwing them into rivers?  And now people are asking me to stoop down to that level! Oh no. Never!” He went on to say that there are White people who died for our freedom and named some of them including Rev. James Reeb, whose murder in Selma was the reason I joined the Movement.

He went on to say, “We have a Power that is greater than an atomic bomb. An atomic bomb can only destroy. Love can change people attitudes. It is the only Power that can change an enemy into a friend.”

Soul Power is the answer to physical power.

In the Movement there was the slogan, “To save Black men’s bodies and White men’s souls.”

I believe that we all discriminate and are discriminated against in some way or another. That even after working with Dr. King in the movement for years I can not say that I am free of prejudice. Only when we can recognize our prejudices can we cure them.

That day in Lowens County this came home to me very vividly as a result of my encounter with the man in the camping office.

My expectations were based on earlier times. But times have changed. My expectations about the person were based not only on the bases of what the person in those days might have done two generations ago. They were in fact also based on a judgement about the person because of the color of his skin and not the content of his character. The man behind the counter was an example of the change in attitudes in both black and white minds.

So change is possible.

On the top with Barak Obama, and on the grass roots in Lowes County as well.

A change made possible through the Soul Power of the marchers.

May we tonight go forth with that Power in our hearts to make the Dream a reality everywhere.

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