Originally Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2014, 9:53 pm
Last Updated: Feb. 16, 2014, 11:11 pm

Lessons of leadership praised at RI Black History event

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Todd Welvaert/twelvaert@qconline.com
Mahoganee Gay, Rock Island, dances during the Black History Month event by the Second Baptist Church in Rock Island, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. The program compared the lives of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela and honored former church leaders.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Welvaert/twelvaert@qconline.com
James Salter reads about The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., life at a Black History Month event by the Second Baptist Church in Rock Island, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. The program compared the lives of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela and honored former church leaders.

ROCK ISLAND — You don't need to be famous to make a difference in your community and your world.

That was a key lesson Sunday at a Black History Month event at Second Baptist Church, 919 6th Ave., that celebrated Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, former church members, and the themes of freedom, equality, social justice and African cultural heritage.

The two towering civil rights leaders were honored in biographical sketches that were split among church volunteers who recounted their childhoods, young adulthoods and influential adulthoods.

James Salter explained why Dr. King (1929-1968) said black people cannot wait any longer for Americans to give them their constitutional, God-given rights. He quoted from the famous April 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail, in which Dr. King wrote: "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

At a church in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, Dr. King said: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

Though his home was bombed, and his family terrorized, the Baptist minister and civil rights leader never gave up in his fight, Mr. Salter said. Ida Bland noted Dr. King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, but had urged African-Americans to refrain from violence. He sought a radical transformation of American society, to address racism, poverty, militarism and materialism, she said.

Nelson Mandela (who died in December at 95) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist who served as the country's first black president, from 1994 to 1999, and was the first to be chosen in a fully democratic election.

A former president of the African National Congress, Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, until his release in February 1990. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After deciding not to run for a second term, he became an advocate for social and human rights issues.

Both men worked tirelessly to end injustice and improve society, church members said. As part of a program filled with music and dance Sunday, there also were tributes to former church leaders from family members — on the Rev. William D. Grimes, Gertrude Walkup, Clarence William Huff Jr. and M.L. Lockhart.

Rev. Grimes was a longtime former pastor; Ms. Walkup became the first chairwoman of the church's board; Mr. Huff was a noted deacon and church educator, and Mr. Lockhart was instrumental in building the Martin Luther King Center and was a former Project Now director.

The Rev. Melvin Grimes, who's now been a minister longer than his late father, said: "He was not a man of many words. In fact, I take the opposite tack."

"He knew how to say something to silence his critics. The older I get, the longer I am in the ministry, I have learned how to sit back and pick the words to silence my critics," Rev. Grimes said,.

Mr. Huff's daughter, Deborah Shivers, said he had an exuberant zest for life, was a loving example of how to live our adult lives, and he refused to "get old, act old or dress old."

She praised his integrity, creativity and leadership, noting his involvement in many charitable organizations. "He believed if you had the opportunity to help others, you had a responsibility to do so," Ms. Shivers said.

As a black person in his time, he was not allowed to join the YMCA, but all eight of his children had memberships, and all graduated from high school on time, she said. Church was very important. "He did not send us; he was there with us," Ms. Shivers said. Though she likened the family to living under a czar in the Iron Curtain, "Life was tough, but he was preparing us to stand on our own two feet," she said.

"We did not appreciate the things he was trying to teach us. We all get the message now," Ms. Shivers said. "He had a lot of faith — he let his inner light shine."

He died Oct. 11, 2012, after battling cancer, surviving longer than expected, she said. "Dad had a zest for life like no other. He taught us how to live and how to die as well — with courage and dignity."

Mr. Lockhart's daughter, Janet L. Johnson, said after taking a train to Rock Island and getting served coffee at the depot in a broken, dirty cup, he knew this was the place for him, because "there was much work to be done here," she said.

He served on the Rock Island Liquor Commission, as chairman of the Rock Island Housing Authority, as well as the first director of the King Center, and accomplished this without having attended high school.

Troy Bland, brother of Ms. Walkup, who had 10 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren, said despite being small in stature, she was very tough and imposing. "She was a no-nonsense person," he said.

Church member Jesse Adams, a retired Rock Island High School art teacher, painted likenesses of all six honorees. His paintings of Dr. King and Mr. Mandela are 6-feet-by-6 feet, while the other pieces are 3-by-4s. It had been 10 years since the church had a formal Black History Month observance.

"I am so proud of Second Baptist," said church pastor the Rev. Joseph Williamson III. "We've had a wonderful day. Thank God for each and every one of you."