On a tragic day in Memphis, Tenn., back in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
The assassination of King, who had led the civil rights movement since the 1950s using nonviolent protests, sent shock waves around the world.
The nation was in mourning.
The night before his death, King had given a speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis that seemed to foreshadow his own untimely passing.
“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land,” King told the crowd gathered at the church. “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
While it has been 50 years since King’s death, members of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta believe there is still much to be accomplished to achieve King’s ultimate vision of unity as described in his 1963 speech, “I Have a Dream.”
“I think being reminded of Dr. King and all that he stood for is still very important for us today,” said Rabbi Emeritus Robert Klensin of the Congregation Children of Israel, who is also a member of the Progressive Religious Coalition. “The dream, although we may have moved forward, there is still much to accomplish in our country.”
In honor of King’s legacy, the Progressive Religious Coalition has chosen the Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley of Atlanta, a veteran of the civil rights movement, to be this year’s speaker at the 11th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Service at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Beulah Grove Baptist Church.
“The Rev. Dr. Durley was a contemporary of Dr. King, and he actually was at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963 when Dr. King talked about having a dream. He was there,” said the Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, who is also a member of the Progressive Religious Coalition. “Dr. Durley was really inspired by Dr. King, and he started doing work as a student in Tennessee and became involved in the civil rights movement. I think having Dr. Durley speak this year is so important, especially considering 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.”
While Durley was born in Kansas and graduated high school in Denver, he began his work in the civil rights movement as the student body president at Tennessee State University in the 1960s.
In his book, “I Am Amazed: Reflections on an Awe-Inspired Life,” Durley admits that he wasn’t fully prepared for life in the South when he accepted a scholarship to Tennessee State University, an all-black college in Nashville.
“Believe me when I say, ‘It is a long way from Denver to Nashville,’” Durley wrote in his 2014 book. “In August of 1960, I got on a bus to ride all the way to Tennessee. I was lonely, skeptical, and afraid; not about the racial climate, but about leaving home. Then, at the Tennessee line, the driver stopped the bus.”
To his surprise, Durley said the driver asked him to move to the rear of the bus.
“I later learned that because of my color I could not sit in the front of the bus,” he wrote.
“That little exercise of getting up from the front of the bus and walking to the back made absolutely no sense to me; nevertheless, I got up and made my way to the back of the bus. Little did I know, crossing that state line, I would foreshadow my destiny to spend the rest of my life fighting the injustice I had experienced in the back of a Greyhound bus.”
All experiences are lessons that breed growth and development, Durley wrote.
“Rather than fume in resentment, in that moment I thought to myself, ‘I’m glad to have any seat on this bus because I’m going to college,’” he wrote. “I could hardly believe my thoughts, so I said it out loud, ‘I am going to college!’ That bus ride was a defining moment in my life. I am amazed at how naive and ignorant I was to the obvious racial discrimination I faced.”
Life in Nashville was hard for Durley, and after three years at college, he became involved in the civil rights movement.
“In 1961, the bus carrying the Freedom Riders departed Nashville. I wanted to go with the Freedom Riders. That afternoon, I went to basketball practice in the afternoon and as soon as practice finished, I ran to the dormitory where the bus was departing from. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I missed the bus,” Durley wrote. “The Freedom Riders’ bus was met at the state line; students were pulled off the bus, harassed and arrested. Then the segregationists burned the bus. After that catastrophe, I vowed that whatever profession I wound up in, I would be working to create a healthy environment whereby people could develop into their best without discrimination and hatred blocking their way.”
By the summer of 1963, Durley and some of his friends decided to travel to the nation’s capital to attend the March on Washington and participate in the protest.
“We got to Washington about 9:00 a.m. the day of the march. When we arrived, there may have been only 25,000 people assembled at the Lincoln Memorial,” Durley wrote. “The march was organized to get the attention of the nation around voting and civil rights. As we waited for the speakers to begin, more people came, and by the time Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the crowd, there were 250,000 people enthralled by his words.”
“Martin’s speech that day changed my life and the attitudes of many others across America. What I saw, felt and heard that day marked me forever and has become the foundation for most of my life decisions.”
Durley, who served as pastor of the historic Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta for 25 years until his retirement, said decades after the March on Washington, he heard Coretta Scott King talk about her husband’s thoughts while writing the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“A few years ago, Mrs. Coretta Scott King and a group of us were laying a wreath on Dr. King’s tomb when she told us what had occurred the night before that famous speech,” Durley wrote. “She described how on the night of August 27, 1963, at about 10:00 p.m., Martin found out that because there were a number of groups sponsoring the march, he would have only twelve minutes to speak to the crowd.”
Coretta Scott King said her husband always wrote out his speeches prior to a major event.
“He spent all night writing and rewriting his speech, trying to get it just right,” Durley wrote. “He wanted it to be precise and clear. He finished his revisions about 5:00 a.m. on the day of the march. The crowd swelled with people coming from all over the nation. When it came time for him to speak, the facilitator said, ‘Dr. King, this is the crowd which we had anticipated; speak as long as God leads you.’”
As a result, King expanded on the speech he had worked on all night.
“Few people even recall very much of what he said the first eight minutes, but we all remember the conclusion of the speech,” Durley wrote. “Dr. King spoke with an anointed, prophetic voice, insightful wisdom, power, passion, purpose and love.”
Durley describes it as a “kairos” moment, when “things came together that were not planned.” Basically, kairos is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment.
“It is a kairos moment when God speaks,” he wrote in his book. “At times when all the things around us cave in on us, there will come a kairos moment in our life that will deliver us from all fear and doubt. Kairos does not depend on minutes and hours, but comes unexpectedly when the Spirit breaks through on us.”
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was, without a doubt, a kairos moment, Durley stated.
“After the speech was finished, my friends and I got in the car and went back to the campus to become more committed to voter registration,” Durley wrote.
After graduating from college with a degree in psychology, Durley became a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, a program manager in the U.S. Department of Education and eventually earned a Ph.D. in Urban Education and Psychology from the University of Massachusetts.
As a result, Durley throughout his life has combined the disciplines of faith and science. He believes God created a perfect, ecologically balanced world for humans to care for, but humans are destroying it at an alarming rate, according to members of the Progressive Religious Coalition.
Durley was honored with the White House Champion of Change Award, and his name is inscribed on the National Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
“I think it is really important that Dr. Durley views climate change as a civil rights issue,” said the Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz. “For me, as a Unitarian Universalist, we base our faith tradition on principles, and our seventh principle is that we affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. So the idea is that we can’t act alone. That everything we do has a consequence for the environment, for the climate, for the world and for the universe, is something that I’m excited to see that he, who is a civil rights champion, has made that connection.”
Polluting our environment leads to serious health issues such as children suffering from asthma, which is also a civil rights issue, Ortiz said.
“By polluting, we are restricting their right to live in a healthy environment,” she said. “And then we have disasters in the weather, like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. So that becomes a civil rights issue, too, when they are not treated fairly and they are not respected.
“So I’m really excited to hear him come and talk to us, because Dr. Durley says he has no doubt that by addressing climate change, we can succeed on working on a fairer and a healthier world.”
In fact, Durley has been intricately involved in global warming climate change discussions across the country and has appeared in the film “The Great Warming” and testified before the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Rev. Terence Dicks, a longtime local activist and member of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta, is thrilled to have Durley as this year’s speaker at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Service.
“I became familiar with Rev. Durley back in the late 1990s when he was working on a campaign to increase Georgia’s minimum wage,” Dicks said. “I was impressed with his willingness to really work on that issue. He took time out of his busy schedule to really push the effort. It is one thing when people talk about helping the community, but it is another when people really do it and take action, especially when it is something like that, which will really impact all of Georgia.”
Over the years, Durley and Dicks have crossed paths working with several groups across the state.
“Then, Rev. Durley and I worked together through a group called The Hunger Coalition,” said Dicks, explaining that the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger’s mission is to end hunger, homelessness and poverty in communities throughout the Peach State. “They joined in with Project South in Atlanta, and we worked on a number of issues dealing with homelessness and hunger, so Rev. Durley really has been a proponent of human rights all the way down to the neighborhood level.”
One of the main missions of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta ever since it first began in 2004 has been to act as a catalyst to frame social justice issues in a moral and spiritual context.
The group has worked hard to bring different traditions together to celebrate one another’s culture and develop authentic relationships among people of all religions including Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Bahá’ís, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Unitarian Universalists.
The choice of speakers for the interfaith worship service each year reflects that goal, Ortiz said.
In the past, the interfaith service has featured speakers such as Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II and social activist and educator, Dr. Cornel West.
“We’ve had well-known speakers, such as Cornel West and Rev. Barber, but I think Gerald Durley needs to be more well-known,” Ortiz said. “He is a retired minister, but I think they call him a ‘warrior prophet’ because he has a strong and powerful message that he is not afraid to share.”
Andy Reese, a member of the Progressive Religious Coalition and president of the Interfaith Fellowship of Augusta, was actually the one who recommended Durley as this year’s speaker after hearing him at a conference in upstate New York.
“He is a dynamic speaker, talking about faith and climate change,” Reese said, adding that he was “blown away” by Durley’s credentials. “From working as president of the student government association to playing on a championship basketball team to becoming involved in the civil rights movement to volunteering in the Peace Corps in Nigeria to playing with one of the Swiss National basketball teams while he was in graduate study, it’s just incredible. And the fact that his name is inscribed on the National Civil Rights Walk of Fame, that is a big deal, so we are thrilled to have him as this year’s speaker.”
This year’s interfaith service will also feature both the Davidson Fine Arts Chorale and the choral music ensemble Creative Impressions.
“We always have the Davidson Chorale, who are so wonderful,” Ortiz said. “But this year, we are so excited because we also have Creative Impressions, as well. And they are going to do the 15 minutes before the service starts. They are going to be doing the gathering music, and one of the songs that they are performing is ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ which has a direct link to Dr. King. At his funeral service 50 years ago, Mahalia Jackson sang that hymn because it was one of his favorite hymns. So that is going to be really moving to have them there.”
Ortiz said she encourages everyone in Augusta to join them at the interfaith service because it truly is a reminder of King’s vision and his hope for the country.
“You know, we thought we had made great strides in civil rights and human rights in this country, but, this past year, we’ve seen how tenuous that victory — if it was a victory — actually was,” Ortiz said, pointing to events such as the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. “We are going backwards in so many ways, so I think rallying for civil rights is something that Dr. Durley is going to help us be able to do here in Augusta because we can never let down our guard. We need people like him to really motivate us and tell us what he’s seen in history and how what he saw 50 years ago with Dr. King still matters.”
The 11th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Service featuring the Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley
Wednesday, Jan. 10
Beulah Grove Baptist Church
1434 Poplar Street