A Sermon as Timeless as 'I Have a Dream'

A Philadelphia church's re-enactment of an MLK service provides one visitor with a renewed vision of the movement.

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Salem Baptist Church program from 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. was the guest speaker

(The Root) -- As Americans, we all know about the terrifying acts of violence that occurred during the civil rights movement: the snarling dogs that chased organizers in the streets, the protesters hosed by Southern authorities, the killings and beatings that took place on the sides of country roads. And as someone raised by a father who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, I heard many a personal tale of the brutal beatings, false arrests, long meetings, nonviolent workshops and rallies in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

But as much as I read history books, saw images on television documentaries and listened to my father's stories of those days, I've always been incapable of wrapping my mind around an era filled with dual dimensions of violence and love, power and pain. For me there's always been a void in a true connection.

So when I learned that Marshall Mitchell -- the dynamic new pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, a suburb of Philadelphia -- was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by replicating the same service that King preached at Salem 50 years ago, using the original recording of King's sermon from that day, I decided that I absolutely had to be there. It's one thing to hear stories about the civil rights movement, but I personally wanted to somehow capture that piece of history for myself. This unique service was an opportunity for me to get as physically and emotionally close to what it would have been like 50 years ago under the tutelage of King.

"I knew I could not bring in a preacher as profound as King," said Mitchell about the commemorative service. "I also knew as a young preacher at an old established church, you have to celebrate history. When I found out that King preached at Salem, I knew this kind of celebration could be possible."

And indeed it was. Longtime church member Gail Haynes, 60, who was a child when King preached, discovered the King sermon in a dusty box in the church's inventory room. As Salem was experiencing a restructuring several years ago, Haynes heard about the archived reels, which had never been played before, from the pastor emeritus, the late Robert Johnson Smith.

"About a decade ago, I started looking through the inventory and found old cassettes, VHS tapes and unlabeled reels," Haynes said. "When I learned of Marshall's vision for the occasion, I pulled out the box. Fortunately, my late father had a reel-to-reel machine, so I asked my brother to ship it as soon as possible. I just sat down and started to play the reels. When I got to the second one, I screamed. I knew that was the sermon."

I traveled from New York City for the service at Salem. When I arrived, I didn't pass one person who didn't greet me with a "Good morning" or, in some cases, a warm hug. When I walked into the sanctuary, I felt a collective consciousness in the air, despite the fact that I did not know a soul.

I felt nostalgic for an era that I had known only secondhand, even though I am of a generation that has been the complete beneficiary of the civil rights movement. As if we had been transported back to 1963, the ushers handed out commemorative pins from the march, along with copies of the original church bulletin when 34-year-old King was the guest speaker.

"I was going through some of my old papers and found the program," said Bill Hengst, 74, who attended the March on Washington as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the service King preached at Salem just a few months later on Oct. 27, 1963. "I didn't know if the church still existed. I looked them up and sent the program. I'm really glad I did."

The service opened with the men's choir processing down the aisle carrying signs with the words "I Am a Man" while singing "Marching to Zion." The gesture was symbolic, powerful and profound. In keeping with the order of the original program, we recited the same Scripture reading and listened to one of King's favorite songs, "Oh, Freedom." Frank Mitchell, the brother of Pastor Mitchell and a singer with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, gave a dramatic rendition that received a standing ovation.