The Police Riot and the Tape Recorders — a Memoir

MLK this hour of history
This hour of history – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Scene: Calm on the streets the Night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was Shot

“Dr. King’s been shot!” came the shout to the large gathering of youth and adult advisors in the church recreation room fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. 

Several hundred teenagers from Decatur’s public housing (“the projects”) were doing their normal thing after Teen Town when Melvin’s shout from the stairwell changed everything. “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!”

Teen Town was an outreach program of First Presbyterian in downtown Decatur, Illinois and the Decatur Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Charles Young of OE., a former Chicago gang member, and I, the 26 year old Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian, oversaw the program with a cadre of adult volunteers.

The room was hot.  What do do?

We quickly rounded up tape recorders, organized the kids into small groups, and gave each group a tape recorder to speak their hearts and minds to anyone who might listen. There was anger –“I told you the m—-fs would kill him! Malcom’s next!” (“Malcolm” was Malcolm X.) There was shock. There were tears. There was shouting. But there was no violence in Decatur that night. A young reporter for the Decatur Herald paid credit to Teen Town’s importance to the larger community. We shared the tapes with the city authorities, the Superintendent of Schools and teachers, and the Decatur Chief of Police as a way of deepening the majority white population’s education in blackness.

Scene: The Police Riot on the Church Parking Lot and the Kerner Commission Report

Photo of members of the Kerner Commission with President Johnson.
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.08051
Some Kerner Commission members with President Lyndon Baines johnson (1967)

Not long after the night one might have expected an “urban disturbance,” the same site became a different scene. Two kids came to fist-a-cuffs just after Teen Town’s 10:00 p.m. closing time. Again a voice yelled news to the lower-level recreation room: “There’s a fight outside!” We sent Melvin upstairs to stop the fight. Moments later we saw the racially-inspired police violence reported by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) erupting on the church parking lot: Melvin in a choke-hold behind the paddy wagon, billy clubs flying, white cops spraying mace into the crowd, Teen Town teenagers whose only crime was that they were black running for their lives.

Forty store windows were broken out that night. The church and chief of police went toe-to-toe on the front page of the Decatur Herald. Facing loud cries to shut down the program, the church board voted unanimously to stand behind Teen Town and our partnership with the Office of Economic Opportunity.

First Presbyterian Church was itself a kind of death and resurrection. Before 1953 it was known as “Power’s Towers” referencing Jack Powers, the CEO of the Staley corporation. I was a place of white privilege and power whose members worship Sunday morning and went out to rule the city for another week. By the early ’50s its membership had shrunk to less than an unsustainable membership of less than a hundred. Then something happened that transformed a dying church into a beacon of racial justice and peacemaking.

In 1953 First Church’s new minister, Rev. Jay Logan, and an African American foundry worker walked the short distance from the church to the YWCA across the street to sit-in at the YWCA segregated lunch counter. By the time I arrived in 1967, First Presbyterian had become a vibrant 1200 member multi-racial congregation. It grew because two disciples of Jesus put their feet and rumps where their mouths were, followed by a great cloud of witnesses who dared to do the same.

In this tumultuous time of wrestling with white privilege and choke holds, the Kerner Commission conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” and the commission’s call for “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” seem prophetic.

Today I’m remembering Jay Logan, and Ruling Elders Jim Smith, Art Tate, Ken Varney, Larry Baer, and Ralph Johnson who quickly gathered the tape recorders five decades ago, and weeks later bore witness to their faith in the midst of a police riot… without flinching.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 22, 2020.

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