To a nation “starving for leadership,” a man whose fellow students were jailed with Martin Luther King, Jr., traced King’s courage through a line of five presidents into the hands of a Kansas City audience Sunday.
“Do you have the courage to lead?” the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. of Cleveland, Ohio, challenged the crowd at the 2018 Greater Kansas City Martin Luther King, Jr., Interfaith Service at Community Christian Church.
“Look at your hands…!” he said, as he prepared the evening’s culminating charge.
To get to that moment, Moss had told of the conflict in October 1960 when he was a student pastor coordinating sit-in protests in Atlanta. The student leadership had summoned King for help and he came. And they ended up landing in jail together.
“He went to jail with us, and for us,” Moss said.
But King went into the jail at greater risk, and he knew that, Moss said. As the students were let go, authorities waiting with a minor traffic citation booked King with charges that brought him a four-month prison sentence.
Moss quoted King’s letter to his wife, Coretta Scott King from the state prison in Reidsville, Ga., in which King said he had “the faith to believe that this excessive suffering that is now coming to our family will in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better state, and America a better country…”
Moss related how the tight 1960 presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy was rushing to its climax and that pleas had been sent to both camps for help.
Nixon, Moss said, “was silent,” while John Kennedy contacted Coretta Scott King and his brother, Robert Kennedy, called the Georgia governor and the court judge.
King’s sentence was dropped. And a black electorate that historians noted had been divided and even leaning toward Nixon swung toward Kennedy, perhaps turning what was one of the closest presidential elections in history, won by Kennedy.
Kennedy led to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Moss said. And later came Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — who both said their elections came on the shoulders of King. And then the election of President Barack Obama.
So much came forth on the “leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who were united with him,” Moss said, “many who went to jail and who suffered — many names you’ll never know.”
Moss’ words had followed an evening of testimony, poetry and song — with the iconic portrait of King layered over a tapestry of pastel colors, symbolizing the multi-cultural, interfaith gathering for peace.
The measure of a person, Moss had reminded everyone, paraphrasing King, was not where one stands “in times of comfort and convenience,” but where one stands “in times of challenge and controversy.”
“Do you have the courage to lead?!” came Moss’ challenge.
“Look at your hands,” he said. “Never forget that these are the hands of God.” In them lie “the dream, the struggle, the charge and the commitment for your children’s children.
“These are in your hands.”