PINEVILLE, La. (BP)–In a first-ever event, the Louisiana Baptist Convention hosted a Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon to begin the state’s annual evangelism conference. About 100 people -– blacks and whites in roughly equal numbers — participated.
At the same time, in Jena, La., less than 40 miles away, about two dozen white supremacists, perhaps a dpzem Black Panthers and their respective supporters marched in the small town which was in the national spotlight last summer as the site of a media-driven civil rights march that drew perhaps 20,000 people.
Despite vitriolic speech and even loaded shotguns -– as reported by local news media -– only one person was arrested in Jena and, in Pineville, no mention was made of it at the MLK luncheon.
E. Edwards Jones Sr., pastor of Galilee Baptist Church in Shreveport for 49 years, was the luncheon’s guest speaker. Jones was a civil rights activist who in 1966 led a seven-year battle to desegregate the school district in his parish.
“Let me describe the climate of that time,” Jones said at the luncheon. It was an era when blacks sat in the first car of trains -– the one that got the most soot from the engines. On buses, blacks were relegated to the back and, on ships, to the very bottom deck, the pastor said.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘Where is my place?'” Jones said. “How demeaning it was to pass through towns and see [painted] on the water towers, ‘Nigger, run.’ How demeaning it was to see curtains come down on houses because blacks were passing through. How demeaning it was to see water fountains for whites only.
“To not have a place, just because you happen to be of a darker hue,” Jones recounted, his voice slowing to a sigh.
“And today” -– his voice rose with a smile -– “look at the beauty of this gathering. Someone had to do something to bring this to pass.”
The evangelism conference’s MLK luncheon was planned after organizers and others in the state realized Jan. 21 not only would be the day set aside for the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life but also the 40th anniversary of his death, said Wayne Jenkins, the Louisiana convention’s evangelism/church growth director.
“We wanted to be sensitive to the day set aside to honor Dr. King,” Jenkins said. “I felt it was a good thing, good for the people of Louisiana and good for the state convention.”
James Jenkins, no relation to Wayne Jenkins, is the state convention’s regional strategist for northwest Louisiana. Of “a darker hue,” to use Jones’ words, James Jenkins also serves statewide as the de facto African American ministries director.
In welcoming the luncheon participants, Jenkins told how his mother called him from play one day, which usually meant he had done something wrong, but on this day, she just wanted him to sit in front of their black-and-white television.
“She instructed us to sit down and listen,” James Jenkins recounted. “I was about to witness the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jenkins quoted from King’s speech on Aug. 23, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.:
“… [I]n spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Jones told the luncheon that “Dr. King freed white folks as well as blacks. If you are the oppressor, you are oppressed by the very thing that keeps you from being part of change.”
Jones first met King in 1957 in Omaha when he already was emerging as a force for civil rights. King later spoke at Galilee Baptist in Shreveport.
“My responsibility was to see [that] he arrived safely to the church from the Castle Hotel,” Jones said, explaining that the Castle was no high-dollar hotel but “a segregated hotel in the roughest part of Shreveport. I asked Dr. King, ‘How do you stand up under pressures like this?’ ‘Jones,’ he told me, ‘you have to learn to roll with the punches.'”
King was a humble man and a tremendous orator, Jones said. “I heard that in person.” Jones also described King as “very kind and gentle, very approachable….
“The reason his movement moved people, gained strength and is alive today is that he knew … there can only be one King, one King of kings. We have a challenge to tell a dying, crying world that we have someone who can help them. … That’s the story we’ve got to tell in our local settings.”
Bart Walker, not yet 40, pastor of Kingsville Baptist Church in Pineville and a recent transplant from a pastorate in Natchez, Miss., said he attended the luncheon because “I was interested in hearing the speaker, the topic, the perspective.”
Paul Romy, 52, pastor of Riverview Baptist Church in Alexandria and a Mississippi native, said, “I’m glad I came.” Jones’ message “opened my eyes more to where we come from. The things he talked about -– it wasn’t just on the bus or having separate water fountains. It [the separation of blacks and whites] was everywhere.”
The Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon was a small event that could have major benefits, Wayne Jenkins said. It seemed to bring greater awareness to whites of the changes that have occurred in the 40 years since King’s death, and it seemed to bring appreciation from blacks –- most of whom were not affiliated with Southern Baptists but stayed for the training and preaching at the evangelism conference -– for the way the Louisiana convention assists the churches.
“This is God’s work,” Jenkins said as he gestured across the room where the luncheon took place on the campus of Louisiana College. “This is what heaven’s going to look like.”
Karen Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, online at www.baptistmessage.com.