MLK's message not always welcomed in black community, historian says

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Not all African-Americans welcomed the help of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., historian Samuel W. Black said.

For example, said Black, director of African-American programs at the Heinz History Center, King went to Cleveland for a voter registration drive among African-Americans to help Carl Stokes become the city's first black mayor. However, Black's research uncovered that several black clergymen there did not want King's involvement.

Years later, while preparing to speak about his findings at a memorial service for King in Cleveland, Black realized that three of those ministers were on the podium with him. He quickly edited his speech.

“I didn't mention them by name, but I did cover the fact that (some) ministers opposed King,” Black said with a smile. “But I was glad to see they came around to King's thinking.”

Black was the keynote speaker on Sunday at the 46th annual Allegheny-Kiski Valley Memorial Service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

About 40 people at Faith Lutheran Church in Harrison heard Black note that King's message of social justice and equality remains important. He said America leads all nations in incarcerating its citizens, the majority of them African-Americans; that education of American children continues to be a struggle; and that the wealthy continue to amass wealth while lower-income groups see their earnings dwindle.

Black said President Abraham Lincoln, King and thousands of others “put their lives on the line to uphold freedom.

“It is a tradition we must continue,” he added.

He said continuing King's efforts and message is “how we continue to make this country a better place.”

Continuing an appreciation of that and of what the civil rights movement did for all people might become a greater challenge for the Alle-Kiski Chapter of the NAACP and the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches. The two organizations sponsor the annual observance and raise money for scholarships to help African-American and needy high school students attend college.

The Rev. James Legge, president of the churches association, noted that the only really young person at the observance was Black's son, sitting in the front row. Most of those seated in the church pews appeared to be older than 50.

“We need more of this generation sitting here,” Legge said as he shook the boy's hand. “Let's make it our task next year. Let us make that our goal next year, to bring young people here.”

Aarie Holt-Scruggs, chairman of the King memorial service committee, and the Rev. E. Phillip Wilson of Harrison,a retired minister and longtime committee member, said the lack of young people at the service concerns them.

“I think that is a concern of churches in general, but in the civil rights movement there is a concern about getting younger people involved,” Wilson said.

More involvement by local congregations might help, he said.

“They have to keep lifting this up, both white churches and black churches,” Wilson said.

Holt-Scruggs announced that the collection for the scholarship fund during the service raised $1,400 and the committee has received at least another $1,300 through the mail. Scholarship winners will be announced in the spring.

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or

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