By JOANNE L. PAPAIANNI
It has been a half century since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on the balcony of a Memphis hotel, but he is in many ways just as present in society today as he was in 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement.
And that is exactly the hope of Asbury Park resident Gilbert Caldwell.
Caldwell knew King who was 10 years older than him when both attended theology school at Boston University.
“He was getting his Ph.D and I was getting my masters in theology,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell later marched with King in Selma and in Mississippi.
This week he recalled where he was and what he was thinking after hearing about King’s death April 4, 1968.
He said he was attending a meeting of fellow clergy in Chicago when during their evening meal the news was relayed to them.
“We adjourned our meeting for the evening when we got the word and returned to our homes,” he said. “Riots were already breaking out, eruptions were taking place, fires, etc…”
“We decided we were going to try to redirect some of that anger,” he said.
And that is what he did upon returning to Boston, where he was the pastor of the Union Methodist Church.
“When I got home to Boston I walked the streets with other clergy. He (MLK) was an apostle among violence, a victim of violence and then there was a violent reaction to counter that,” Caldwell said.
When he first heard the news that King had died Caldwell said he was “very disappointed, in despair, and angry a bit.”
“And in Memphis he had spoken the night before,” he said referring to King’s last and most famous “mountain top” speech when King seemed to predict his own death.
Caldwell recalled that King spoke about being able to see the promised land, but warning his followers that he may not get their with them.
“He was encouraging Black people that we were moving forward,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell also said King was aware that violence was a part of his life, as violent protesters followed him at rallies and there were many death threats made against him.
“He saw violence all around him,” Caldwell said.
Speaking of himself and other civil rights advocates he said, “Fear was all around us, but our commitment was stronger than our fear.”
Now 50 years later Caldwell sees signs of hope, even in these difficult times.
“I’m deeply impressed with the media coverage this week of the 50th anniversary,” he said.
Caldwell sees it as a commitment to justice and reflected that in different ways the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump have shown that there are still difficult issues surrounding race relations.
Caldwell said he does not like to use the term racist in describing people, and said seeing so many citizens take to the streets in protest of so many issues has made him feel hopeful.
He cited the marches for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, teachers marching for just compensation, Black Lives Matter and Parkland students as a coming together of justice movements.
“We’re at a time when we realize our democracy is in peril,” he said.
Speaking of the second amendment discussion Caldwell said, “The non violence of Martin Luther King was so serious… against government tyranny.”
Caldwell speculated what would have happened if African Americans had exercised their second amendment rights during the civil rights movement and how dangerous that would have been.
Caldwell also said having lived during racial discrimination when he worked at a restaurant where he could not eat as a customer, he wants to see more Black businesses and employment in the course of the redevelopment of Asbury Park, which he called “this little city by the sea.”
Caldwell invoked the words of the late Congressman Tip O’Neil who said, “All politics is local”.
“Our challenge in Asbury Park is to ‘localize’ the current justice movements. It would be sad and unforgivable if Asbury Park slept through today’s ‘justice revolutions.’
“The Women’s March, the Rally Against Hate, the student’s (March for our Lives) rally, etc. require local action: Affordable Housing, jobs and contracts in the building taking place here, housing for those who were removed from public housing, businesses on the boardwalk owned and staffed by people of color,” he said.
Caldwell said he and his wife Grace grew up in the racially segregated south where they knew the last words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all,” were, in his words, “a lie!”
He said he has hopes that Asbury Park can right the wrongs of racial injustice.
“God help us if Asbury Park, continues to promote the lie. AP can make justice history if it becomes a city where historic injustice is corrected through inclusive justice.
“Let us not become a city that publicizes its Marches and Rallies, but still practices segregation. People of color must become visible at every place here. If not, we tarnish the present and the future,” he said.