Religious News Service Washington correspondent William Willoughby spent two days asking black and white Memphis churchmen what has happened in the year since Martin Luther King was murdered. His report:

Folks in Memphis are proud. On March 11 the Commercial Appeal did an eight-column spread on the ninety-nine-year sentence Judge W. Preston Battle meted out to James Earl Ray for assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King. Above the headline on the world’s number-one story of the day appeared a view of Memphis’s growing skyline on one side and a picture of the judge on the other. In between, in three succinct paragraphs printed in bold face, was the refutation Battle made at the sentencing of a national magazine’s cutting barb that the mid-South’s leading metropolis is a “decadent river town.”

Battle is right; the city—twenty-fourth largest in the nation—is not decadent. But it is emotionally enervated—from its black population’s challenging of the Establishment, from the drawn-out events of the Ray trial, and from adverse publicity resulting from King’s murder (“Why did it happen here—why not somewhere else?”).

It’s a year since Ray’s shot into King’s face triggered the biggest wave of terror the nation has known. As he lay in wait at the rear of a seedy flophouse, his 30-caliber rifle trained on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel across the alley, Ray caught the nation’s seventh-fastest-growing city off its feet. Almost. Had it not been for the excellent leadership of such Negro clergymen as James Lawson of Centenary A.M.E. Church and Judge-pastor Ben Hooks of Greater Middle Baptist, Memphis—like Washington—would have burned.

Though Memphis didn’t burn, it smoldered. As Dr. John William Aldridge, formerly of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, put it, Memphis is a city whose foundation and basis is a civilization “gone with the wind”; yet many persons are still hoping “for a nostalgic return to the golden days of King Cotton and the river steamer.” After the murder of King, the chasm between the blacks (38 per cent of the population) and “the East Memphis crowd” almost split wide open. Although many pretend the city is one, the boulevards of the affluent lead more directly to City Hall than does black-lined Beale Street.

Had King’s murder occurred this year instead of last, the city would have been much more off guard. On April 4, 1968, fortunately, Negroes were rallied to a cause. Someone could speak to them when it was vital that someone speak. Their clergymen—who previously were questioning what the Church can legitimately do in social activities and admonishing their people “only to adjust to the pains of this world and have faith in God”—spurred on a cause.

Mayor Henry Loeb wouldn’t budge an inch on black sanitation workers’ pleas for better pay and conditions. And as never before, white Memphis encountered black power. As the crisis mounted, King was flown in. Good Friday turned into Black Easter.

In a frantic eleventh-hour effort, the hastily organized Downtown Ministers’ Association determined (only after half-hearted white dilly-dallying) to meet with the black ministers and head off trouble. Individually, white ministers can get to the Establishment, and with the threat of boycotts, it was important for them to do so. Some even marched with the blacks to City Hall, receiving sharp criticism as their reward.

A year later, there is no cause significant enough for the blacks to rally behind. Though not as resigned as before, they lack the cohesion the garbage strike fostered. Many white clergy, the frenzy over, have settled back to daily pastoral duties. The city lacks a binding force that can keep the Negroes united and the whites alive to the problems of modern urban life—the precise point, as Aldridge sees it, where the tragedy of Memphis lies:

Article continues below

“The white church of Memphis did not understand the times.… Rather than utilizing history, [it] became the victim of history. Being mired in a basically eighteenth-century Weltanschauung, with nineteenth-century institutional forms, Memphis was not able to deal with the problems of twentieth-century urbanization.”

Air-conditioning and the breakup of the Crump political machine helped Memphis rise from the agrarianism and concomitant Southern feudalism of the thirties and forties to become a city flexing its muscles as the regional headquarters for many national corporations. Though the new mayor-council form of government assures Negroes a voice (three councilmen out of thirteen), the white receiving set is better wired.

Such clergymen as Dean William A. Dimmick of St. Mary’s Cathedral (Episcopal) and the Rev. William Jones, also an Episcopalian, share Aldridge’s view that the trouble with Memphian Christians is a fierce individualism that doesn’t allow for much cooperation. This might be all right in an agrarian setting, they say, but it vitiates influence the Church must have in an urban situation. As Jones, executive director of the clergy-prodding Association for Christian Training and Service (ACTS), puts it, “Memphis is numb out of all this and is just recovering. There is a deep longing and yearning for leadership in this city.” But the individualistic outworking is king—“get the people saved,” as one forlorn Catholic priest put it, “and things will straighten out. But it is obvious Memphis is its own best argument against this position.”

The Commercial Appeal’s Barney DuBois quoted Hooks to illustrate the point: “The Rev. Mr. Hooks said he had pleaded often with white Memphis churches to get involved in the civil-rights struggle, but he said he always received the same answer. ‘They tell me, we don’t want to take social positions. We’re out to save people soul by soul. Once everybody’s saved, then we won’t have any problems. But now comes the liquor-by-the-drink proposal, and they (the white churches) came running to us, asking us to get involved in their struggle. They take a social stand on one issue, but not another. So I told them, why don’t you do it yourselves, soul by soul?’ ”

It can be rather costly to take a stand in Memphis. Take Southern Baptist pastor Brooks Ramsey. Last fall he offered to resign as pastor of the 1,700-member Second Baptist Church when he made his interracial convictions known. “I just felt that since the Gospel is for all men, I ought to be free to preach it to all men.” A lot of flak went up, but the majority wanted the popular minister to stay. Some 200 stampeded out, however, carrying their purses with them, spurred by the fact that Second Church was the only one in the city where a Negro spoke on Race Relations Sunday.

A few churches and Memphis Bible College carry on missions with Negroes in areas like Boxtown. But such operations are of the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” type. One program, Project Match, pairs Sunday-school classes with grades in particular schools and distributes clothes and other items. Some criticize this as paternalism. Methodists and Presbyterians have some things going, particularly in recreation. One black-white program is cleaning up mini-parks. But by and large, as Commercial Appeal Religion Editor Lloyd Holbeck describes it: “Most churches were not involved last summer, are not now, and do not plan to be next summer.”

Article continues below

A bright spot is the ongoing programs of the Paulist fathers at St. Patrick’s Church, in the shadow both of Beale Street and of the Lorraine Motel. Father William Greenspun and his collaborators work tirelessly with Negroes, who have scared most whites off to other parishes. He sees some hope coming out of the King experience: individually some key persons are getting “a type of conversion” that tells them they’d better mend their racial outlook.

“Links of trust” between some clergymen and individual laymen were forged on a very limited scale in the year following King’s death by such men as Jones and Dimmick. Even as Southern Christian Leadership emissaries gathered in Memphis, Selma, Montgomery, and a score of other cities to mark the second phase of the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a handful of Memphians met to form MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association) in hope of at least creating a viable ecumenical, biracial vehicle for communication, possibly allaying urban crisis conditions and talking sense to the city fathers. This in a metro area where there are as many as 900 churches (“more churches than gas stations,” Memphians point out) and where there is not even a council of churches. Even Dimmick is not overly optimistic: “We keep reminding ourselves that David had only a few stones.”

Though the Jones-Dimmick brainchild provides that any participating church or member need not go along with the rest on any course of action MIFA takes (pressure from within individual churches could make this a valuable escape when the going gets rough), chances are Memphis will continue to be more obsessed with whether Ray was a part of a conspiracy than it is over the silent conspiracy of the Establishment. Memphis hasn’t changed much in a year’s time.

Graham In Melbourne: Stones At Christians?

The Billy Graham Australia crusade ended at Melbourne Cricket Ground March 23 in warm Sunday-afternoon sunshine as 85,000 persons gathered to hear the message of God’s forgiveness. The meeting was taped for U. S. color TV broadcasts late next month. Planes from all over the South Pacific flew in worshipers; hundreds came from Sydney and Adelaide by chartered trains and buses.

At a closing press conference, Graham announced he would set out immediately for Southeast Asia and a series of conferences in search of a peace formula. The evangelist said he would report to President Nixon on returning to America if the President wishes him to.

Graham said he was highly gratified at what God had done in Melbourne. He noted it was virtually a youth crusade from its inception. Young people made up more than three-fourths of the cumulative audience of 330,000. And up to 95 per cent of those going forward on youth nights were under 25. Other interesting statistics: 20,000 crusade volunteers visited 700,000 Victoria homes; there were 3,000 home prayer groups, 4,000 counselors, and a 1,500-voice choir. The meetings brought more than 12,000 inquirers.

An ecumenical, cooperative spirit was evidenced by the participation of 1,120 Victoria congregations and the top leadership of Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and other churches. Melbourne Archbishop Frank Woods, who pronounced the final benediction, said he “tremendously appreciated the directness of Dr. Graham. He preached without any thoughts of compromise.”

The crusade had an unusual outreach into factories which produce everything from cars to ice cream to paint, where messages were brought by Florida boat-builder Walter Maloon. There was also penetration of schools, universities, and offices. Attendance at daily services at Myer Bowl averaged 25,000, with Governor Rohan Delacombe of Victoria and General Wilson Haffenden among platform participants.

Article continues below

At the March 21 service, demonstrators from a left-wing club at Monash University tried to disrupt the meeting by charging into the counseling area as Graham began his appeal, shouting, and throwing leaflets condemning Graham’s “emotional, unintelligent messages.” Police arrested eight persons. The audience was scarcely aware of the disturbance, and nearly 1,000 young people tame forward.

Graham told the audience, “I am here not as a representative of any country but of the Kingdom of God, and proud to be such.” He said the time may soon return when stones will be thrown at Christians.

Melbourne was the culmination of twenty-two crusades directed by Dan Piatt over the past year, extending through New Zealand, Tasmania, Singapore, Malaysia, and several Australian cities, and involving associate evangelists Lane Adams, Grady Wilson, Ralph Bell, and John Wesley White.

SHERWOOD E. WIRT

Amity For Cyprus?

Cyprus, legendary birthplace of love-goddess Aphrodite, has had anything but amity since it became independent in 1960. But Greek and Turkish Cypriots are holding talks for the first time in five years, and in recent weeks they have shown signs of healing the island’s political-religious wounds.

The main problem is the desire of the Greek Cypriots, 78 per cent of the population, to unite with Greece (“enosis”), and opposition to this from the 18 per cent Turkish population. But enosis may be more a Greek idea than a Greek Cypriot idea.

Fighting broke out in 1963 when Cypriot Greeks led by Orthodox Archbishop Makarios III, president of Cyprus, sought constitutional changes. A U. N. peace-keeping force has been there ever since, though 2,500 troops have been withdrawn in recent months. Turkish leaders have now accepted “the principle of a unitary state” and removed a defensive blockade on a major highway. Greeks are letting Turks enter and leave their sectors more freely, though Greeks are not yet permitted in most Turkish sectors.

Conflicts have been deepened by religious connotations. Cyprus was a battleground between the Christian Cross and the Muslim Crescent from 648 to 967. Today, St. Sophia Cathedral in Nicosia’s Turkish sector, once a lovely fourteenth-century Gothic cathedral, is a semiruined mosque adorned with two added minarets and the Turkish flag.

“There is no government here,” said a Turk preparing to wash himself ritually in the mosque courtyard. “All the Greeks can do is plunder what belongs to us.”

Outspoken Archbishop Makarios, an “enosis” leader since the end of World War II, symbolizes the union of religious and political issues. The British regime deported him in 1956 for political activities.

The country’s divisions are very evident in Nicosia, with its two sectors divided by a Greek Line, with sandbagged Pink Lines on either side. United Nations troops patrol the lines, and weapon-carrying Greeks and Turks can’t cross them.

The lines, rather arbitrarily drawn in 1963, cut the old walled Venetian sector in half. Armenians, one of the major minority groups on the island, have suffered. Armenians were classified as Greeks by the constitution because they are Christians, and had to leave the Turkish sector. Thus they lost the 800-year-old Armenian quarter, with its Orthodox and evangelical churches and a school.

LILLIAN HARRIS DEAN

‘Christ At The Center’

“Conservative evangelicals must be made to understand that their Jesus Christ is the center of the ecumenical movement and without them his ecumenical arm is shortened,” World Council of Churches President Eugene Carson Blake told students at the American University in Beirut. During his twelve-day junket through the Mideast—his first since 1952, when he investigated the Palestine refugee situation for the United Presbyterian Church—Blake courted leaders of other religions and sought to step up ecumenical feelings among WCC-member groups from Lebanon to Egypt.

Chiding some large ecumenically shy bodies in the United States, Blake commented: “We are wondering how long we should sit waiting for the Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans. We wonder if we should do something.”

LILLIAN HARRIS DEAN

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: