The first reaction was shock. Stunned silence robbed family and friends of any words. Then came the tears. There would be lots and lots of tears. Deep and utter sadness and disbelief yoked a heavy burden on those who knew and loved President Dwight Montgomery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Memphis Chapter.
Montgomery, who was also the long-time pastor of Annesdale-Cherokee Baptist Church in the Orange Mound community, succumbed two days out of surgery. That first day post-surgery, Dr. Montgomery called his SCLC Vice-President and long-time friend, the Rev. Walter Womack of Faithful Baptist Church in Memphis.
“He called and said that he had come through surgery alright and that he was doing well,” said Rev. Womack. “Dr. Montgomery then called and spoke with a good friend who lives in Florida. All that day, he was resting well. But then, I got a call from his aide about three in the morning. He had slipped on out of here. He was just gone.”
Dr. Charles Steele, president of the National SCLC organization in Atlanta and one of Dr. Montgomery’s oldest friends, took an early morning call from Memphis.
“Not only were we colleagues in the work, but Pastor Montgomery was my dear friend,” said Dr. Steele. “We talked on the phone daily about the work, about personal things. We had grown to be close friends over the years. His death left me emotionally distraught.
“I am a pastor and a funeral home owner, so I’ve counseled with many families in their loss. But there is something different about suffering your own loss. ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ It’s still so hard to realize my friend has actually gone home to be with the Lord.
“Dr. Montgomery was so excited about MLK50 and leading the march with me. He told me, “Dr. Steele, we are going to lead this march, and the Lord is going to be pleased with what we’ve done. The only way we won’t be leading that march is, that either Jesus comes back, or Dr. King comes and leads it. But we will be leading that march.”
There will still be a march on April 4th; it is because President Montgomery knew it was to be a historic moment in time.
Six months after Pastor Montgomery’s passing, SCLC is only now “just starting to smooth out the rough places and fill in the huge void.”
Vice-President Womack was forced by circumstances to take on the leadership of SCLC Memphis almost immediately.
“There were a lot of things thrown in my lap all at once,” said Rev. Womack. “I fully expected in the future for there to be an orderly transition of power as vice-president. But I never saw this coming. Dr. Montgomery has great, big shoes to fill. What I am trying to do is to be the very best leader I can be, given the abilities that God has given to me.”
On to the work…
“I believe we’ve done a pretty good job moving on with the work, despite the fact that we are still grieving a great loss,” said Pastor Womack. “We have been assisted by a tremendous supporting cast. Our Executive Board and Executive Committee have been superb.
“But we have also been supported by the Baptist Ministerial Association (BMA), of which I am a member. In that organization, I work with SCLC Crime and Prevention Committee. The ministers have been faithful in helping us through this very difficult time. And the city as a whole has been supportive, and we are grateful.”
So…what’s on the agenda for 2018 and beyond? Although committed to investing in “black youth” issues and other community concerns, SCLC has never been defined by or limited to narrowly defined causes.
The Memphis chapter was front and center in mid-January this year pleading with corporate execs at Kroger to reconsider closing two locations, both located in predominantly “black areas,” both serving a vital service to “the poor who are limited by their resources and transportation.” One store was on South Third Street, and the other was near Park and Lamar Avenues, near Orange Mound.
“We wanted Kroger to seek some other avenues other than closings to rectify the fiscal losses at these two stores,” We felt it was so important to have fresh meat and vegetables accessible right in the center of these communities. We felt the hardship would be most egregious for our elderly. They are the most vulnerable.”
“Although the stores were closed despite our efforts, we did what we could. President Montgomery would have been right there in the thick of things, waging that fight. We are watching closely for new stores to move in because those communities have a tremendous need.
President Womack wants “to continue working with the school system to enhance the learning experience for our children.” Dr. Montgomery was very passionate about youth and changing the culture by changing the way education is administered. He wanted to see better pay for teachers, more efficient use of public school resources, and school choice.
Rev. Womack wants to continue some initiatives geared toward youth and enlarge on the vision in looking to the future.
“One thing I will be looking to do is broaden our outreach,” he said. “I want to be a diverse president. We want to deal with issues that are of concern to all people, not just African Americans. Through every era of the civil rights movement, Caucasions have always stood with our people. Others suffer injustices and inequality also. We must be concerned about all people. I believe the Lord requires it of us.”