Dr. David Shevin photograph


July, 2007

When Tinky Winky the Teletubby learned of the death of Reverend Jerry Falwell, he lowered his triangle-topped head toward his stomach screen and murmured, “Eh-oh”. Then he considered for a moment, jumped up and down, squealing: “Again! Again!” Personally, I thought that was pretty cold.

Okay, that was the first joke that came to mind when I learned of the passing of the right reverend Falwell. Falwell had been a holy terror, after all. In addition to the comic-book style of accusation and Christianity that he profited well from, he left a legacy of vitriol and backwardness, not only for his much celebrated homophobia, but for his racism. This was the reverend, after all, who sermonized in the 1960s against the “civil wrongs” movement, and regularly broadcast segregationist politicians on his OLD TIME GOSPEL HOUR.

As far back as 1958, Falwell was preaching against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision: “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made…. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.” Falwell’s mission to wed faith and politics left a disastrous legacy, ‘nuff said.

Still, I was reminded that bringing personal spiritual belief to public debates on issues was not something that originated with Fall well, successful as he was in defining a kind of political framework for conservative evangelicals. This was driven home by the less-publicized passing of Yolanda King, eldest daughter of Martin Luther King, further back in the pages of the same papers eulogizing Falwell.

Yolanda King had a commanding presence as a speaker, and made her way as an activist, actress and producer. Like her father, Yolanda did not hesitate to call on a spiritual mission in her pursuit of justice. Too, she maintained a long view of achieving equality, seeing youth leadership as essential in every step of breaking barriers. Her Higher Ground Productions was an ambitious project to inspire and activate young people, her own contribution to continuing the legacy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

She was still in her infancy when the segregationists opposing her father’s work, championed on THE OLD TIME GOSPEL HOUR, bombed her home. She came through this legacy, a daughter of the movement, with strength and a poetic vision of human possibilities.

It must have been about 1992 when I heard Yolanda King speak to a crowded hall at Ohio Northern University. It was a lively presentation on a cold winter night, drawing often on the substance and mission of the family’s work. She was convinced that the huge legacy of being a King daughter was utilitarian at heart. The idea of legacy was that it had to be applied, and she often reminded the audience throughout her talk that the civil rights movement was not a relic but a living history. Then she would challenge each person to consider what the individual contribution would be that was being brought to the table.

There were themes that Yolanda King embraced as her own and dwelt on: the ideas of service of building local communities, of participation in the civic debates. She had little patience, as she addressed the college audience, with young people who wrote off the voting franchise. She invoked the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, the program of the Southern Poverty Law Center at the time of her father’s death, and promoted that this was the mission still to be followed. Instead of cynicism, she promoted an enduring belief.

When I prepared to head down the road for King’s talk, I decided to tote along the recently published paperback of her father’s major writings, A TESTAMENT OF HOPE. If there was an opportunity, I thought, I would ask her to sign my copy. I made my way to the podium as the audience was dispersing, and as I got a moment to speak with Yolanda, I reached into the winter coat to draw the book out. Two men nearby reached into their coats as I opened mine, and I realized that these were bodyguards.

Of course! Given the violence and rage that was directed toward the King family from Yolanda’s infancy, it only made sense that she would not travel without being guarded. Her father and grandmother had both been targets of successful assassins, her home had been bombed … as her father had sermonized in his second book, STRENGTH TO LOVE, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Today I took the book Yolanda had signed off the shelf. What Yolanda had written in the inscription was a common pledge – to “make the dream a reality”. The news about Falwell was still filling the op-ed pages, and King’s passing was hardly making a mention. The loudest voice in the choir is not necessarily the sweetest.

By David Shevin

(C)opyright 2007 David Shevin All Rights Reserved

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