MY BIT OF HISTORY
by Rev. Harold W. Story
In the years of the 1960s, the racial prejudice and discrimination here in the United States of America was to be faced in turbulent and highly explosive events.
I was serving as Pastor of the Memorial West Presbyterian Church, 7th Avenue and South Orange Avenue, Newark, New Jersey, from 1962 to 1969. Racial riots broke out in cities across the country. Tensions increased in Newark also, and in the mostly black populated neighborhood where the church was located. White vs. Black. For example, I was elected to be a Trustee of Area #3 Community Center. At our first meeting blacks took over in our place.
There were threats to invade the church and disrupt worship. I was told that they could use our church building to better serve their community. I had tried to make our congregation do that by being a more inclusive and welcoming church to all persons from the area.
I used the word “inclusive” rather than integrated as I believe this was the meaning of Jesus Christ for us; for example, Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” who came to help someone—a Jew, perhaps—as they discriminated against the Samaritans (much like Jew vs. Arab today). Two persons went by without helping the man, but finally one not of his race or religion came to his rescue.
In a society where segregation was so widespread, I tried to make a difference—hoping that members of our church would work at change among the races of our society. Many black people had moved from the South up to the North seeking better treatment—only to find the same racial problems there.
Martin Luther King was spokesman for racial equality as a challenge to the nation. The Greater Newark Council of Churches members were asked to go to Alabama to join Dr. King in the March from Selma to Montgomery that was held on March 21-25, 1965. I was on my way and met a woman member of my Church. She asked where I was going; I told her I was going to go with a group from Newark to march with Dr. King in Alabama. She told me I should not go; my work was in Newark. I told her I needed to help ease the racial problems in both places.
We flew to an airport in Alabama close to where we joined the march for the final two days. There were many protesters to meet us. The newspapers claimed we were trouble-makers, socialists/communists who came to stir up trouble. As we walked behind Dr. King, I saw both black and white persons along the route watching our peaceful march. Fortunately, our group did not face the attacks as some had, although we were shouted at by angry protestors in the crowds.
Governor George Wallace had called in police to block the protesters. In contrast, we assembled en masse to hear Dr. Martin Luther King give one of his deeply moving speeches. (Also, earlier, in 1963, I went to Washington, D.C., to hear Rev. Dr. King give another great speech, “I Have a Dream,” at our nation’s capitol.) Sadly, though, Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968. His dream is still alive as some of us are trying to make it a reality—for all persons regardless of race—in our American society.
Just one experience I had during the time of the inter-racial troubles in Newark in 1967. I was down the street from my Church, walking as other clergy were to help ease the tension in the City. I saw a group of people gathered in front of a Chinese laundry, looking into the windows of the store. Two dogs were barking inside. I asked why the people were there and was told that they were concerned about the owner, whether he was alright—dead or alive.
I then saw a convoy of the National Guard trucks coming—called then to restore order within Newark. I motioned to the men in the first jeep to stop. Two came over to us and asked what I wanted. I told them the people were concerned about the safety of the Chinese owner—whether or not he was in the store and alright. Also, whether his dogs should be fed. Two of the soldiers drew their rifles ready to shoot, but I stopped them, I stopped them—we only were concerned to help the man. They lowered their guns.
I asked them to wait; I went to the corner candy store to use the phone … I had been told that the laundry man’s name was Mr. Lee. I knew there were Lees who were members of the First Presbyterian Church of Newark on Broad Street. So I scanned the Lees until I found one at an address near the church. I phoned and asked the person if a Mr. Lee who owned the laundry on South Orange Avenue in Newark was there. He answered, “I am his cousin; he is here with us and is alright.” How about that!
I went back to tell the crowd and the soldiers that Mr. Lee was alright safe with his cousin. The National Guardsmen left. A day later I walked by the laundry store and saw that bullets had shattered the windows, and bullet holes were in the laundry upon the shelves.
I tell this to say that the caring for others can be done by and for anyone regardless of their race or religion, thus to make real the hope of Dr. Martin Luther King and the teaching of Jesus Christ in their speeches and sermons.