MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Much of the civil rights movement, the planning, the coordinating, the strategies started not in the streets but in black churches.
“Everyone in the movement itself had to have faith that the status quo could be changed,” says Reverend James Lawson, Jr., a civil rights pioneer who worked closely beside Dr. King as a young theology student.
He came to the South to help Dr. King in the movement.
Reverend Lawson was behind putting together the Sanitation Strike here in Memphis, saying it was an old strategy dating back to Egyptian workers who demanded better wages from Pharaoh and their managers.
“The sanitation strike was not an accident. The strike by workers is more than 2,000 years old as a tactic in the human family,” says Lawson.
Now Rev. Lawson is in Memphis helping clergy members plan their own remembrance of Dr. King and the sanitation workers.
The Reverend Mark Matheny is co-chair of the Voices of Justice, a group of clergy coming together to show appreciation to the ministers who stood by the striking sanitation workers.
“It was April 5, 1968 and some 150 members proceeded from St. Mary’s to City Hall to talk to Mayor Loeb,” says Matheny.
They petitioned the Mayor back then but never got a firm commitment to end the Strike.
When members of the clergy march on April 7th of next year, they will start at St. Mary’s church on Poplar and go to City Hall, remembering the response ministers got there some 50 years ago.
They also hope other clergy will join in and pick up the challenge to get involved.
“Voices that come together and speak out for justice and equality are very important. It’s a legacy of Dr. King that is living today and needs to face the kinds of issues we face today,” says Matheny.
Those who set the stage say 50 years later there is still work needed to get the country to return to its faith.
“Clergy and theologians and professional religious people need to step up their action in helping to shape what that faith means and how it helps to bring about change within and brings about social change,” says Lawson.
The ministers plan to hold their commemorative march April 7th of next year.
They hope it is just a beginning dialogue that brings black and white pastors and their congregations together.