When my brother Val and I were around 9 and 10 respectively, and before my other brother and sister were born, our mom used to take us to church every Sunday. Most of the time we got there too late for Sunday school so we sat up in the balcony of the Baptist Church with the adults and the older kids. Typically we would listen to the Pastor of the church or the assistant Pastor talk about God and man or some other such things that usually put my brother and me fast to sleep.
One Sunday when we arrived at church there was a different kind of buzz in the air – one of excitement and anticipation. It seemed that a young visiting preacher was going to speak instead of the usual (and boring) clergy. I remember looking around to see people rushing to be seated and urging each other to quiet down. The young minister was about to start. I also remember that he didn't speak long – 45 minutes at most, which was unusual for ANY Baptist preacher. When you had an audience, you kept them around for a while.
As he spoke, I noticed his features; he was a small man with the smallest hands I had ever seen on a man before or since. This preacher had a distinctive accent – southern I think, but well educated. He spoke as if he had some urgent message to tell us and the adults in the audience all seemed to agree that it was important AND urgent. One other thing – my brother and I were still awake!
When this young preacher finished, something happened that I had never seen before in church: He got a standing ovation. This ovation lasted such a long time that I remember being scared that something he said was going to draw the police to the church. Back in those days even in Jamaica New York, the police had no problem intruding in places where large numbers of Negroes gathered – especially if they were making a lot of noise. But none of that happened. The ovation dissolved into people rushing the pulpit to congratulate the young preacher for his uplifting words. My mom even went down and shook his hand. My brother and I were completely satisfied to observe all the commotion from the safety of the balcony.
To this day I cannot remember a single thing he said – only the way he said it – and how it affected EVERYONE in the building. What I didn't know then was that this young preacher would one day uplift the entire world with his words. Words that challenged others to find peaceful ways to live together, and to 'turn the other cheek'.
That young preacher was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.