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.

Advertisement

"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.

Advertisement

"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.

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. 

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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."

Advertisement

"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.