“Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
Bishop E. Lynn Brown belted out words from the poem, “Present Crisis,” penned by American poet James Russell Lowe in the 1800s. He had a serene smile on his face as he recited the words melodically, as if he was singing a hymn.
“Dr. King loved that poem,” Brown said, still smiling. “He referenced it in his sermons. He was so prophetic.”
He shook his head, recalling one of first times he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach. Brown was then a student at Phillips School of Theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. Dr. King had just started preaching once a month at his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist.
“I went to hear him preach every second Sunday,” Brown said. “I can still hear his thunderous voice.”
Brown would officially meet Dr. King when the civil rights icon began to lecture at the seminary school he attended. Already interested in civil rights, Brown would get the extra motivation to fight against inequality from the leadership of Dr. King.
“I was always a rebel and believed in activism,” Brown said. “But Dr. King inspired me.”
Growing up in a rural town in Madison County, Tennessee, during the Jim Crow era, racism and inequality ran rapid around a young Brown. But he was always surrounded by courageous black men. He recalled the day he saw his father stand up to an armed white neighbor who had stormed onto their farm complaining about their cows.
“It was unheard of at that time for a black man to stand up to a white man,” Brown said. “I was so proud of my father that day.”
That was the moment he knew he also had to speak out against injustice, despite the dangers.
“When I was younger, a group of young pastors and I would go to Mississippi to set up freedom houses. The white men would be on their big horses and throw torches to burn down the houses.”
Despite the risks, Brown and other pastors continued their endeavors. One day it nearly cost them their lives. Brown recounted the time he and the other ministers set up a voter-registration drive at a church in Indianola, Mississippi. He was sure his life would end that day.
“When 30 deputy officers come out and point guns at you, before dragging you out of church … and you can hear them say ‘let’s kill these niggers’ you think you’re going to die.”
Fortunately, the deputies took the men to city hall, and a white police chief urged them to release the black ministers.
“He saved our lives. I don’t know what they did to him as a result of that, but I’m glad he did it,” Brown said.
The young pastor and activist eventually would work alongside Dr. King during the first march held on behalf of the sanitation workers in Memphis in March 1968. During that protest, a violence broke out, resulting in the killing by police of Larry Payne, a 16-year-old protester.
“That march ended violently. That’s not what Dr. King wanted. And he said … ‘I’ll be back.’ ”
Dr. King kept his promise, returning to Memphis the next month. Brown shared the stage with Dr. King at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, as he delivered what would be his final public speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
Brown’s tone changed as he recalled the last time he saw Dr. King.
“We didn’t know that would be his final speech.”
Brown was to meet with King and other civil rights leaders for dinner the next day at the home of Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles. That meeting never happened. The civil rights leader was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
“We were angry,” Brown said, shaking his head. “Our leader was gone.”
Dr. King’s legacy would remain with the pastor who would go on to be elected the 46th Bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1986. He continued his fight against injustice, receiving numerous awards for his activism.
“Dr. King taught us how to organize love and resist evil,” Brown said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Although the now-retired pastor said progress has been made since Dr. King’s death as it relates to Jim Crow laws, he believes that the issues of poverty, education disparities, and violence are still plaguing the city of Memphis.
Brown said while many people emphasize the words, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” from King’s last speech, he meditates on the words that were spoken before that.
“Before he said, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’ he said ‘we have some difficult days ahead,’ ” Brown recalled. “And even today … we still do.”