Verse — Chicago’s Southside, 1965

The First Presbyterian Church
and the Blackstone Rangers

All stores and resturants must serve all
after the Civil Rights law passed
in 1964. But real
change comes, that has a chance to last,
as power shifts. Our Church began
to work with gangs to help get blacks
to vote. When Stones said everyone
should register, they did! Then folks
began to see that City Hall
responded to their needs: new trucks
to fix the streets appeared, to haul
away the piles of garbage. Police
still threw around their white might, but
some liberal lawyers, black and white,
were found to fight for the release
of innocent poor folks. Some peace
between gangs even came at night…

The Reverend John Fry, ex-Marine,
on Sunday could inspire wood pews
to organize for holy fights.
On Monday words that were not clean
scorched any sinners who refused
to honor all black civil rights.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Jan. 26, 2015

NOTE: This is a memoir of Steve’s years at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago when Steve and Nadja Shoemaker sat in the inspired wood pews listening to the Rev. Dr. John Fry’s preaching at First Presbyterian Church. Click HERE for information on the Reverend John Fry, First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, the Blackstone Rangers, and the Chicago Police Department. John Fry was an inspiration to us at McCormick, a bold preacher in the social gospel tradition who put his life where his mouth was.

MLK Assassination: A Memory

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forty-four years ago today the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Read this morning’s Washington Post story.I was with about 200 teenagers from “the projects” in Decatur, Illinois when the news broke. First Presbyterian Church and the Office of Economic Opportunity had partnered to create a youth program at the church. Charles Johnson, a former Blackstone Ranger from Chicago, and I (the 29-year-old Assistant Pastor) jointly administered the program.

We were in the church basement when the voice rang out from the steps, “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!” The room was filled with shock and anger. Some of the kids preferred Malcolm X to Dr. King, but on that night it didn’t matter. The room was united, overwhelmed by tragedy, another violent act of racial hatred.

Dr. King’s assassination came two months after the release of the report of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the “Kerner Commission”) that had concluded:

Our nation Is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The conclusion of the Kerner Report about police violence had been demonstrated on the church parking lot two weeks before Dr. King’s assassination. On that night Decatur police officers, without warning, had stormed into the crowd of black kids in the church parking lot at the end of the evening program. They came waving billy clubs and spraying mace. I was there. I saw it. Forty store windows in downtown Decatur were broken out that night. A number of the kids were arrested.

While the Decatur Chief of Police and I squared off with our different accounts of the events on the front page of The Decatur Herald, the board of First Presbyterian Church, which included a prominent sitting Judge, stood united and firm. We would not close the program, as the Chief was demanding.

First Presbyterian Church, Decatur, IL

When the voice announced that Dr. King had been shot, the adult leaders of the program had reason to fear the worst. Quickly we rounded up tape recorders. We made an announcement inviting the kids into smaller circles, spread out throughout the church building, that would give each and all of them time to talk.  We announced that, in light of what had happened two weeks before, we wanted their voices to be heard by the Chief, the Mayor, and the members of the Decatur City Council. We were all outraged; the feelings needed to be spoken and shared.There was no violence in Decatur that night. There was no riot.

The tapes were edited and played for the city officials.

The program continued without further interruption.

The Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. prevailed. And it still does.