Long road to today's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday

By jeanne starmack



On March 7, 1965, ABOUT 600 civil-rights marchers attempted to cross a bridge in Selma, Ala.; among them was 16-year-old James Webb.

The marchers were protesting the lack of voting rights for black people. Their plan was to march from Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery.

What happened to those marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day went on to become Bloody Sunday, one of the most infamous episodes of the civil-rights movement.

“When we left Brown Chapel [AME Church, starting point for the march] there were no cops,” said The Rev. Mr. James Webb, now a Baptist preacher who spoke Sunday at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day worship service at the Union Baptist Church on Lincoln Avenue.

“What we didn’t know was that they were gathering on the other side of the bridge.

“We saw a sea of blue and gray,” he said, the color of the uniforms of Alabama’s state troopers.

“Before we knew it they put on masks and started tear-gassing us and ran us back across the bridge,” he continued. “It was an absolute miracle nobody was killed.”

Marchers were beaten and trampled by horses. But the 16-year-old boy was not deterred by the experience.

Several days later, he would march with a group to the steps of the Dallas County, Ala., courthouse and confront the county sheriff there. He would ask the sheriff to pray with him, and the sheriff would refuse.

The Rev. Mr. Webb would go on to have a career in the civil rights movement, working as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He worked as well with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the iconic civil rights leader whose “I Have a Dream” speech and urgings for peace and justice inspired the nation before he was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

But Mr. Webb’s role Sunday, he said, was that of a Baptist preacher, which the Rev. Dr. King was also, first and foremost.

He paralleled the story of Joseph and his multi-colored coat from Genesis with Dr. King’s civil-rights journey, and he urged the congregation to see it in their own journeys as well.

Joseph, an interpreter of dreams, was given a multi-colored coat by his father, who loved him more than he loved his other children. So his jealous brothers plotted against him. They at first plotted to kill him but then sold him into slavery, and he ended up in Egypt. After he rejected the advances of his owner’s wife. she had him imprisoned. Eventually he was sent to the pharaoh to interpret a dream and he became secretary of agriculture for the nation.

“If you are a dreamer, if your vision is beyond what others can see and touch and hear, there will be people who will set out to kill you,” Mr. Webb told gatherers.

“There are people who will let you down, who tell you they are with you through thick and thin, but when it gets thick, they get thin,” he said.

“There are people who will sell you out,” he continued. “In the midst of trying to move forward, you can always expect there is somebody who will sell you out.”

“There are some folks who, if you don’t do what they want, they will do everything in their power to make sure you don’t do anything,” he said.

He said that Joseph found a way to lead, even in prison.

“The God that Joseph served could lift, where nobody else could lift,” he said. “He could reach down into Georgia and lift up a man who would stand on a mountain top and tell the world, “I have a dream.”

Sunday’s service was the first part of a two-day observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day today.

A workshop was open this morning at the First Presbyterian Church on Wick Avenue, featuring discussions about how to solve the violence problem.

“We will talk about activities of peace, issues of violence and aggression in our community and how we can remedy them,” said the Rev. Dr. Lewis Macklin, convener of the events.

“Issues of gun control, gun violence, safety, and the pursuit of peace — those are issues Dr. King would address and would expect us to.”

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