Some thoughts on the unfinished work of Dr. Martin Luther King

It’s Martin Luther King Day and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to do a reading from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” tonight at UW-Marathon County. Please come and join us in the new Center for Civic Engagement at 6:30 p.m. But whether you are able to do that or not, here is a piece that I wrote in June 2009 which seems appropriate to the occasion. In the two and a half years since I wrote it, NAOMI, the group that Rev. Ellwanger has been working with here, has become involved with trying to keep public transportation available in the Village of Weston. So far, the village board has resisted and bus service ended in 2012. Not everyone thinks it’s about the money:

http://drrent.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/westons-final-no-to-bus-service-p-s-i-dont-think-its-about-the-money/

* * *

Four little girls
Who went to Sunday School that day
And never came back home at all–
But left instead
Their blood upon the wall
With spattered flesh
And bloodied Sunday dresses…

(From a poem by Langston Hughes)

* * *

Other than a stint in the Air Force for a half dozen years, I’ve lived in Wausau pretty much all my life. I say “pretty much” because I’m actually a native of Milwaukee; my family moved here when I was two years old.

We went to Milwaukee to visit my grandparents and they were members of Cross Lutheran Church on North 16th Street. The neighborhood had been populated by German and other European immigrants in the 1800s and by the 1960s, it had a significant African American population. Since Wausau was literally one of the “whitest” communities in the U.S. in the 1960s, it was the only place that I ever saw and met black people — but most of the kids I knew in Wausau probably never had that opportunity at all. My grandparents were active in the church and for many years, my grandfather and a couple of other guys were in charge of opening the envelopes and counting the money, which was something that they did every Sunday afternoon in a cloud of cigar smoke at the kitchen table.

In 1967, a new pastor came to Cross by the name of Rev. Joe Ellwanger. These were times of great racial tension in our country and Milwaukee was no exception. I can remember the family driving to Cross from my grandparents’ home on 84th Street and passing armed National Guard troops in the late 1960s. This was a tumultuous period.

In 1968, we took a family vacation and we could see the orange glow of burning buildings as we passed some of the large cities on our way to New York. Joe Ellwanger was insistent on working for racial equality and justice; a real urban warrior. That much I knew, even as a kid — but it wasn’t until yesterday when I ran into Pastor Ellwanger again that I learned something about what made him that way.

Before coming to Milwaukee, Rev. Ellwanger had been a pastor in Birmingham, Alabama. On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb consisting of 122 sticks of dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The church had been at the center of the struggle for racial equality in the south. Four girls were killed in the attack, three of them 14 years old and one of them 11. (Interestingly, one of the girls killed was Denise McNair, a friend and schoolmate of future U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.)

Birmingham erupted in violence and by the end of the day, 16 year-old Johnny Robinson had been shot and killed by police after throwing rocks at cars with white people in them and another 13-year-old boy had been shot while on bicycle ride with his brother by some passing white kids. As if it hadn’t been before, Birmingham became Ground Zero in America’s racial turmoil.

How could those Klansmen think that they could do something like that?

“With things the way they were at that time,” says Rev. Ellwanger, “they thought they would never be arrested. Or even if they were arrested, they would never be charged. Or even if they were charged, they would never be tried — and even if they were tried, no jury in Birmingham, Alabama would convict them and they would never go to prison. And for 25 years, they were right.”

It wasn’t until 2001 and 2002 that Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Edward Blanton Jr. were convicted of murder in the incident. Robert Edward Chambliss had been convicted in 1978 and a fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 without ever being convicted.

“If you’re going to blame anyone for getting those children killed, it’s your Supreme Court,” asserted former Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor at the time. As outrageous as that sounds, you have to remember that George Wallace was governor of Alabama – a man whose most famous quote may be from his 1963 inaugural address earlier that same year: “… segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” Wallace later changed his views, along with a lot of other people in this country. Sadly — and even after all we’ve been through — some will never change.

The funeral for three of the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing attracted thousands. Dr. Martin Luther King gave the sermon. One of the girls was a member of a nearby Lutheran congregation and her family asked their pastor to read the lessons. It was Rev. Joe Ellwanger.

Although he is retired, Joe Ellwanger is as busy as ever and still working for justice. Wisconsin needs to think about why we have more than 23,000 people in prison while Minnesota has only around 7,000 in their state penitentiaries, he says. The crime rates aren’t really any different, but what we’re doing here is costing a fortune and it isn’t working. We need to change. The group he represents is called WISDOM and they advocate for treatment instead of simply punishment because the former offers some promise of success at lower cost. We already know how well the latter is working and what it’s costing us. (Of course, WISDOM’s effort took a step backwards in 2011 with Gov. Walker signing a bill to end Wisconsin’s modest early release program. Feel safer?)

What I can tell you is that Joe Ellwanger has been around the block a couple of times on issues of justice and he sure was right the last time. It was good to see him again.

JR

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