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.
Then absolute silence. The pulpit was empty — Mitchell had taken his seat. And suddenly, out of nowhere, King’s powerful and unmistakable voice of conviction echoed throughout the sanctuary.
His sermon, titled “All, Here, and Now,” could have been preached today. King vividly explained the significance of those three simple words. “We don’t want some of our rights, we want all of our rights … and we want them here … and we want them now!” The audio was surprisingly clear, with only a few moments of graininess, and the amens, shouts and cheers from the audience were in sync with those from the recording. As I digested King’s words, I couldn’t help thinking of the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act.
“The sermon is historically relevant and also futuristic and prophetic,” said Mitchell. “We hear a voice that speaks on the other side of eternity that is more proper and appropriate today than it has ever been.”
I have listened to several sermons by King. But to say that this experience at Salem was special would be the most unfortunate understatement. This re-enactment was the closest I would ever get to experience the essence of Martin Luther King Jr. The past had been forged with the present.
I finally had a glimpse of what my father felt — gathered in a group of like-minded individuals, all concerned by the country’s current state of decline — becoming transformed by King’s words of activism, encouragement, dignity and faith. We’ve all heard the ubiquitous phrase “the power of the people,” but I truly felt collectively empowered and inspired in that spiritual group setting, and I can only assume from my dad’s stories that that’s exactly how he felt, too.
“I had been involved in civil rights just locally in some marches and felt very deeply about it,” said Hengst. “I don’t remember as much about the service 50 years ago, but it seemed much more powerful today.”
The program closed with a twist. After everyone locked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome,” the church band belted out, “Wake Up Everybody.”
“That song became a secular standard,” said Mitchell. “And ‘We Shall Overcome’ was the sacred standard. I wanted people to hear both because the March on Washington was both sacred and secular.”
Leaving church, I realized in this extraordinary celebration that I had experienced something that was not only sacred but also completely transcendent.
Alexis Clark is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Formerly an editor at Town & Country magazine, she’s currently researching a book on black nurses in World War II with the support of the Ford Foundation. Her recent work has appeared in the New York Times and Manhattan magazine.