(By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, The Gospel Coalition). The week before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was late for a march.
The sanitation workers in Memphis had been on strike for six weeks, when simmering anger over low wages, unsafe conditions, and outdated equipment boiled over after a malfunctioning garbage truck crushed two sanitation workers seeking shelter inside it during torrential rain.
The city government said the two men weren’t covered by workman’s compensation law, and offered the families a payout so small it didn’t even cover the funerals.
Days later, most of the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike. They rallied at Clayborn Temple, home to the most prominent African-American congregation in the city. The pastor (then a white Canadian) printed their placards in the basement (“End Dismal Working Conditions Now,” “Jim Crow Must Go!” and the famous “I Am A Man”).
King joined them in what would turn out to be a disaster of a day—the crowd was massive (city officials estimated 22,000 school-skipping students alone) and restless. King marched but canceled the demonstration when some protestors began looting. The police responded with clubs and guns (killing a 16-year-old black boy). When some of the crowd took refuge in Clayborn Temple, police pumped it full of tear gas.
King left Memphis, returning the next week with plans to lead another march. The night before his death, he told a crowd that included nearly all the sanitation workers: “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 didn’t survive the next 24 hours, gunned down as he stood on his hotel balcony just before dinner.
Over the next several decades, as his legacy grew, Clayborn Temple’s faded. The congregation dwindled, the doors were shut, and both looters and weather took a run at the inside.
Until a multiethnic, multiclass Presbyterian church plant wouldn’t quit asking about it.
Today, about 300 people fill the seats each Sunday; around 35 percent are African American. Congregants of Downtown Church [member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church] look at stained-glass windows original to the 1892 construction. (Last week, the building—which is still called Clayborn Temple—was upgraded from a local historic landmark to a national one.) They hear messages from their black and white pastors. They reach out to the neighborhoods they straddle—the revitalizing city to the north and the historically black, under-resourced community to the south.
It isn’t perfect—to some black members, the church feels really white. The ceiling is literally falling in. And members largely avoid the balcony, unsure of exactly how much weight it will still hold.
But the occasional discomfort is well worth it.