[Have there been events in your life that were so powerful you knew something changed for you, even if at the time you didn’t understand what or how? If I made a list of such events Martin Luther King Jr.’s name would appear prominently. This is the second in a series of four reflections on these events. If these memories really are “precious,” they won’t mire us in our pasts but will point the way to possibilities in our presents.]
In 1960, Dr. King came to Dallas to speak at a voter registration rally. My social ethics professor at Perkins School of Theology, Joseph Allen, invited several of us go hear him. Except for media, we seemed to be the only whites present. Dr. King was supposed to speak at 7:00 but didn’t arrive until 10 pm. It was the first time I had seen him in person or heard him speak.
He started low and slow, but the momentum he built was irresistible. When he came to what would become his signature ending, the 2,000 people were already clapping, shouting, and stamping their feet so hard that the building itself began to shake: “We are working for that day when, in the words of that old Negro spiritual, we can sing, ‘Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.’” The crowd went wild. As the tumult subsided, Dr. Allen leaned close to my ear and said, “Aren’t you glad we’re on the same side?”
As we drove back to the campus, the other chatted about the evening. I was lost in thought about my great grandfather, Amos Lancaster Thornberry. My grandfather, father and I shared great grandfather’s middle name. I was proud of it, but had always been glad that the name passed on to me was not “Amos.”
Amos grew up in a large family in Greenup, Kentucky. When the Civil War broke out, many families, especially in Border States, split over the war. Amos was the one member of his family that was in sympathy with the Union. He said he was opposed to slavery. In 1861 at the age of sixteen he enlisted in the Union Army, his brothers all joining the Confederate Army. He was wounded in the battle for Atlanta but stayed in the army until the end of the war. He went back to Greenup only long enough to marry his fiancé and then headed to Texas. He did not contact his family again. His convictions about the Union and abolition were so strong that he refused to worship in southern Methodist churches that in 1844 had split with the other Methodists over the issue of slavery.
Growing up in Texas, I learned that my parents and grandparents had conventional southern attitudes about race, or at least chose to be silent if they believed otherwise. And yet, my grandfather and my father both took some pride in telling the story about Amos. That puzzled me. I tried to embrace the racism of my peers, but in the back of my mind there was always this story.
As with Dr. King, I never met my great grandfather in person, but on this night when Dr. King spoke, my great grandfather and his story came alive. I realized Amos was involved in this struggle and I should be too!
The opportunity was not long in coming. In January 1961, the Sit-In Movement, begun in Greensboro and Nashville a year earlier, spread to Dallas. Leaders from SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) organized demonstrations at strategic locations around the city.
Several of us from the seminary participated, but because a German deli across the street from the campus, and our favorite eating place, refused to serve us when we had gone there earlier with Marshall Smith, one of the few black students in the seminary, we organized a rump sit-in of our own. Much to the chagrin of his customers who were urging him to call the police, after an hour’s standoff of four of us sitting at an emptied restaurant, the owner backed down and served us our favorite sausages and hot potato salad. It was the only sit-in in which I participated directly, but others were going on at eating places all over the city. Within weeks, Dallas joined twenty-five other cities in desegregating restaurants and lunch counters. This was three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made such segregation unlawful.
When the activities died down in Dallas, we congratulated ourselves on being a part of history, and went back to our studies. We believed we were on Dr. King’s side. What we didn’t know was that in the months ahead, King would have reason to doubt that white moderates were serious about justice and desegregation.