A conversation with Reverend Ronald English
Events in recent months have caused me to reflect a great deal about race and inequality in the United States, and I wanted to articulate some of those thoughts in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Growing up, I attended diverse public schools, but my kids go to a Jewish day school that is predominantly white. They don’t regularly interact with diverse peers at school, and that has made me realize that this is an area in which their education is lacking something that was part and parcel of mine.
Over the summer, my husband and I let our daughter, who is now 11, watch some of the news coverage about the Black Lives Matters protests, and we talked about the unfairness of fearing police brutality if your skin happens to be dark. We also talked about the right to peaceful protest, and of course the fact that it is wrong to resort to violence to make a political point.
Amid the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, these issues have continued to play in the background of the news, with the issues of protest versus riot and disparate use of police force brought into stark relief with the horrific invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Even before that dark day, however, I decided that I needed to speak to my kids more about race in the U.S., and the history of how we got here. As I have been processing events, a couple of resources have been particularly helpful in guiding my thought process.
This PBS interview by Kelly Corrigan features Bryan Stevenson, who has dedicated his life to representing death row inmates, including those wrongly accused, and advocating for racial justice. He talks about his own background and family history with slavery and segregation, and the interview includes a visit to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which beautifully and hauntingly memorializes victims of lynching (the memorial was modeled, in part, on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).
In addition, I was encouraged and inspired by a recent podcast by 18forty.org. The host, Rabbi David Bashevkin, interviewed Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, an educator and school administrator, about what role Orthodox Jews should play in advocating for racial justice. She incisively articulates the similarities and differences in the experiences of Jews and Blacks in the U.S., and talks about her own advocacy efforts as well as issues the Jewish community needs to confront in its consideration of race in the U.S.
A few days after listening to the podcast, it occurred to me to reach out to Ghee Gossard, my third grade teacher, with whom I have stayed in touch over Facebook. I remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her, and feeling inspired by the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought she might have participated in the 1963 March on Washington in which Dr. King delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. While it turns out she has participated in other protests, she was not involved in the famous march.
That got me thinking about how fascinating it would be to speak to someone else, who had actually been there on that historic day. I informally polled some friends and family members to see if they had participated, or knew someone who had. I wasn’t having any success. (My father was a teenager living in D.C. at the time of the March, but had only recently moved there, and had not attended.) Then, I decided to reach out to a former classmate, Leisha Gray, whose father I recalled was the pastor of a church in my hometown of Charleston, WV, and was active in Civil Rights issues. I messaged Leisha on Facebook, and she responded right away to say that her father had been at the March, and she could put us in touch.
This turned out to be an incredibly fortunate connection because her father, Reverend Ronald English, was not only a participant in the March, but also had close ties to Dr. King.
Rev. English grew up in Atlanta, his family was close to Dr. King’s family, and they were actively involved in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, of which Dr. King was the pastor, following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Martin Luther King Sr.
Rev. English was himself a mentee and ministerial assistant to Dr. King Jr. At the time of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, Rev. English was just 19 years old, and he and a friend drove all night from Atlanta to D.C. to participate in the March. I had the great privilege of speaking to him by phone on the evening of January 14, 2021.
I asked him to describe the experience of participating in the March. He told me about the overnight drive, filled with excitement and apprehension.
“Getting there was quite an interesting experience,” said Rev. English. “When we passed through Lynchburg, Virginia, there was a noose in the middle of the town.”
This was meant to deter participants from continuing to the March. Many of the marchers came to D.C. from the South, and the majority arrived on the day of the event.
Most of the demonstrators came by bus, and Rev. English describes the event as being well organized.
“There were so many buses there, they had been assigned schedules.”
Thinking about footage I had seen of Southern police officers in physical confrontations with Civil Rights activists in the 1960s, and about recent events in D.C., I asked him what he recalled about the police presence that day. I was surprised by his answer.
“I don’t remember seeing an officer,” he said. “The capitol police were not a conspicuous presence.”
They would have been there to direct traffic, but, in his memory, they were not an intimidating force.
“They didn’t anticipate trouble,” said Rev. English. “They took the meaning of the March, grounded in the philosophy of non-violence.”
Approximately 250,000 people participated in the March, and an estimated 75 to 80 percent of them were Black. An Associated Press account published that day noted that Capitol police and National Guard members had been assembled for the event, but there had only been three arrests, and none involved the demonstrators.
In spite of the enormity of the crowd, because of his connection to Dr. King’s church, Rev. English was able to get close to where Dr. King and others, including the late Congressman John Lewis, were speaking.
“I was excited,” said Rev. English. “I was nervous in the sense of an anticipation of what this experience was going to be like. It was amazing to see the number of people. There was a contagious energy.”
When Dr. King took the stage, the energy increased even more.
“The momentum went to a different level,” he said.
I asked what it was like to hear the now famous words “I Have a Dream” for the first time. It turns out Rev. English and other members of Dr. King’s congregation had heard that phrasing several times before in church sermons and at the June 23, 1963 Walk to Freedom in Detroit, Michigan. Following the advice of colleagues, Dr. King had not planned to deliver that speech for the March, and had prepared other remarks. However, shortly before taking the stage, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson approached him.
“She said, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ He put the papers aside,” said Rev. English. “The rest is history.”
Even though the words were not new to Rev. English, the feeling at the March was completely different.
“It was one thing to hear it in church. It was another thing to hear it at that place and time,” he said. “It had such vigor, such rhythm. There was a different intensity.”
“You could hear reverberations in the crowd,” he continued. “Not only had we heard something, we felt something. It inspired us to move on with the movement.”
While the March was an inspirational day, there were many difficult days ahead for the Civil Rights movement. Just a few weeks later, four Black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Dr. King said ‘My dream has become a nightmare,’” said Rev. English.
However, Dr. King and other leaders persevered toward new goals. In many ways, Rev. English said Dr. King’s message in the last year of his life – against racism, militarism, and economic injustice – was more disruptive than desegregation.
“It didn’t cost anything to integrate,” said Rev. English. “It brought a certain type of prosperity – everybody’s income increases. Racism and economic injustice went hand in hand. He challenged the country to deal with the issue of poverty. That was too much. Everybody on staff knew his days were numbered.”
Before he died, Dr. King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a series of protests, culminating in a huge march on Washington, to draw attention to poverty in the U.S. He was assassinated a few weeks before the campaign was to begin.
Rev. English related the dark times following Dr. King’s assassination to current events, with political discord, an economic downturn, and the COVID-19 pandemic all converging.
“He talked in that last sermon, he said there are some difficult days ahead,” said Rev. English. “I don’t think he imagined it would be this difficult. It’s been a dramatic phase of difficult days.”
However, Rev. English still finds reason for optimism.
He noted that the Biden/Harris campaign has looked at current events and said “this is not who we are.” Rev. English sees it differently.
“I always felt this is who we are. We have been shocked into the reality of who we are,” he said.
The task now is to confront that reality.
“That’s where I find the most hope and optimism.”
He referred to the biblical creation story.
“Out of chaos, we have a cosmos,” he said. “Every time we have seen a dramatic rupture, we have seen a dramatic reconstruction. When it’s darkest we see the stars.”
Moving forward, “significant rather than cosmetic” change is needed, he said.
Rev. English was very generous with his time. We were on the phone for close to 40 minutes. I felt a bit selfish to take so much of his time because my blog has a relatively small readership. On the other hand, I thought of our conversation as being a record of an oral history that is important to document and share, even on a small scale.
After ending the call, I had to usher my kids off to bed for the night, and they immediately began peppering me with questions about who I had spoken to, and what this was all about. We spent a few minutes talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. I hope to continue our conversation and show them the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a small step in their education, but I’m deeply grateful to be able to share a first-person account of history with my children. More than that, as so many of us have struggled against pessimism, fear and despair, it’s deeply comforting to hear a voice of optimism from someone who has lived through equally dark times in our nation’s history.