Monday, January 20, 2014

Today Is Martin Luther King Day

If you were not already aware because you went to your mailbox and found nothing, today is a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I know a lot of people were speaking about Dr. King and his accomplishments in the Civil Rights Movement.

There have been events all day long, all over the country commemorating Dr. King, and rightfully so. He was a great man who accomplished much before he was taken from us much too soon. 1968 was not a good year in America. His assassination on April 4, 1968 was just the beginning of a horrific year.

I want to focus this post on another Civil Rights leader who was right there with Dr. King. His name was Leon Sullivan. He was a Baptist Minister for the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Dr. Sullivan took a small, struggling church of sixty people and turned it into a congregation of six thousand! His fiery sermons brought people to hear him as he became known as the "Lion from Zion" and made his congregations one of the largest in the nation by the time he stopped preaching there in 1988. 

Dr. Sullivan died of leukemia April 24, 2001 at the age of 78. The reason I want to make you aware of this inspiring individual is I got to hear him speak for a brief moment following my keynote presentation for the Minneapolis Native American OIC graduation ceremony on October 23, 1998.

Let me set the stage: Jennie Lightfoot was the executive director of the OIC and asked me to give the commencement address that day. I had known Jennie from my days of working for as a trainer for Honeywell several years before that. Jennie knew of my experience living on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the early 1960s when my dad was a teacher and coach in a small town called McLaughlin, South Dakota. In the interviewing process with Jennie, I told her of my experience living in McLaughlin. I mentioned a couple names of athletes my father had taught and coached when we lived on the reservation.

One of those names I mentioned was Willard Male Bear. Jennie giggled and said, "Do you mean Willie?"

I told her we had never referred to him as Willie, but yes, that is probably the same guy! As it turned out, Willie was the same man who used to babysit for us when he was in high school in McLaughlin. I love small world stories like that!

As Dr. Sullivan was escorted into the banquet room towards the head tables, he was asking to sit by the keynote speaker. Dr. Sullivan had recently suffered a stroke and the right side of his body was extremely compromised. He came in with a gentleman supporting his right side and walking with a cane in his left hand. As he sat down next to me, as many victims of strokes will do, he kind of dropped that last foot or so into the chair.

Everybody was making a big deal out of this distinguished older gentleman who was obviously struggling from the effects of his stroke. We sat through lunch and people wanted to meet him and shake his hand. It was fun watching him interact with everyone that came up to the table and greeted him. He was very gracious as his meal was interrupted several times.

Once the program started, I noticed he was scribbling notes with his left hand in the margins on the program. I thought to myself, "This old guy is writing his speech as he sitting here." Little did I know who this "old guy" was and what he was doing.

They had made a temporary, nice, long ramp to get up to the stage for me. I am sure it met ADA Standards. I went up the ramp, with my wireless, lavalier microphone ready to go, and gave about a thirty minute presentation that brought a standing ovation to the banquet hall.

Then, Clyde Bellecourt made me a Sioux Warrior, wrapped me in a blanket and four tribal members sang a traditional song in my honor as they sat around a bass drum beating it rhythmically. It was quite a moment and one I will never forget.

I came down off the stage, and as Dr. Sullivan was being helped up, he winked at me and said, "Let's see if I still have it." 

Dr. Sullivan was standing at the back of the platform and Clyde started to introduce him. As Clyde Bellecourt it is known to do, he can start ranting and no one really knows how long he will go. He started in that day and Dr. Sullivan was getting a little weak kneed waiting for Clyde to finish his introduction. You could hear people at the head tables telling someone to get Dr. Sullivan I chair because no one knew how long Clyde would go and Dr. Sullivan was leaning up against the wall.

No sooner did Dr. Sullivan get seated in the chair when Clyde stopped his tirade, said to the audience, "With that ladies and gentlemen, please let me introduce Dr. Leon Sullivan!" You should have seen the look Dr. Sullivan shot at Clyde. It was precious.

As Dr. Sullivan was helped to the podium, he laid his program on the podium and adjusted his glasses a bit to try and read the scribbling he had put on his program. He was struggling. As he started to speak, something happened I have never witnessed before and will probably never witness again. The spirit literally came into him for about seven or eight minutes and he was whole again!

I have never sat in a black Baptist church listening to a good old-fashioned Baptist preacher preach fire and brimstone. But that day, for a few minutes I got to experience God's presence enter into a rare and committed preacher of the word. I will never forget as he was in full stride, speaking with the spirit moving him and he slammed his right fist on the podium and made a statement that started with tremendous force, "My brother Martin … " He continued for a couple minutes and then just as quickly as the spirit came into him, it left. It was an experience like nothing I have ever seen.

As Dr. Sullivan was helped back to his chair, I leaned over to him and said, "Dr. Sullivan, you've still got it!" I gave him a big smile and patted his shoulder.

Dr. Sullivan smiled back at me and replied, "I just can't keep it very long anymore."

Wow! I will never forget my experience with one of the great Civil Rights leaders of our time who marched along with Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson and all the rest.

I learned in a hurry, "You can't judge a book by its cover."

I look forward to your comments.



1 comment:

Colleen said...

You have had some amazing encounters over the years. Happy to see you describing them! Memories to last a lifetime, huh? Keep on trucking!