Remembrances of Dr. Martin Luther King, by Rev. Ken Steigler

Posted By Brad Walker

Over the years, a long-time Rotarian Rev. Ken Steigler has led numerous groups on Martin Luther King Freedom Trail bus trips into the Deep South, reminding others to “walk in peace” as did Rev. King. Monday night’s program recounted below,  highlighted many of the historic places, people, and events occurring along this Freedom Trail, as well as provided space for some of Ken’s personal memories of Dr. King.

The 2020 Freedom Trail trip occurred in early March, just before the Covid-19 “shutdown.” Rotarians Enoch and Marion Holloway, Leah Flach, Helen Holt, Rev. Ken, and Mark Vasconcellos all participated in that remarkable and powerful journey.  While future dates remain uncertain, there will be another four-day trip, coordinated by Rotarian Mark and All Nations Church, with the modest cost of $500 covering the comfortable bus, spacious rooms, excellent guides, and many memories!

Rotarian Rev Ken Steigler and Rotarian President Karlene Turrentine

It was in Atlanta while on a university-led study trip when Ken Steigler first met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Ken was then a student at Ohio Wesleyan University and the trip had been organized by his sociology/psychology professors to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement in the American South and be trained in non-violence strategies for countering hostility.  Working with some of the movement’s leaders for training was part of the college students’  mission.  

Upon reaching Atlanta, the group checked in at an Atlanta guesthouse, awaiting Dr. King’s arrival.  Eventually, Dr. King arrived, along with Ralph Abernathy and other prominent Civil Rights figures. For young Ken, the moment was “overwhelming….I  felt the presence of God,” Ken told other Rotarians during Monday’s program.

That first encounter with one of the world’s most renown peacemakers steeped Ken, now himself a minister, in Dr. King’s core beliefs: “Love. Always love.  Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ.  Agitate, don’t instigate.” 

The Atlanta experience with Dr. King was the first of many that Rev. Ken would have in the next few years.  In 1963 while working with CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), he participated in the Aug. 28  March on Washington where, on the National Mall, Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to an estimated crowd of 250,000. 

Today, those memories remain powerful for Rev.  Ken, just as Dr. King’s prayers remain powerful for us all.  Especially resounding is King’s Jan. 1956 private prayer and transformative experience following a threatening, harrowing midnight phone call to the Dexter Street parsonage where King and his family lived. He prayed, he heard an inner voice telling him, “Stand up for justice,” and his confidence returned. Three days later, the house was bombed, but no one was hurt, and King was strengthened in his work, despite continuing to receive as many as 40 death threats a day. 

Dr. King would continue his fight for justice, and Rev. Ken was there too in either body, spirit or both.  By 1965, Ken was enrolled in Boston University’s Theological Seminary.  While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, voting rights of Blacks in the American South were still suppressed. Protests to end voter discrimination became the next fight in the battle for justice and freedom.  

That battle became painfully obvious on the television screens throughout America and the world in what is now known as Bloody Sunday.  On March 7, 1965, about 600 protesters led by John Lewis and others planned to walk from Selma to the Montgomery capital to demand voting rights.  They never made it off the bridge.  Police with clubs, dogs, fire hoses, and horses launched a savage attack on the peaceful protesters. 

The nation was horrified, and many people of conscience, including Rev. Ken, wanted to protest the injustices.   He and others from BU, Harvard Divinity School, and Andover Newton Theological School filled two buses and came south.  The day after they arrived, the Selma News headlines blared, “Northern Agitators Arrive.”  

Before the march, Ken recalled a three-hour service with Dr. King; an all-night prayer service in different churches or private homes; and the 2:30 a.m. gunshots into the first floor of a home where several pastors were staying.  Yet non-violence as a response prevailed.  As Dr. King would say, “You can’t clean anything without agitation.  Work within the system with love, not institigation.”

Today, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma remains an iconic reminder of both Bloody Sunday’s violence against the March 7 marchers, the symbolic but deliberately aborted March 9 procession led by Dr. King, as well as the successful, federally protected March 21-25 walk by more than 3,000 people from Selma to the Montgomery courthouse — 52 miles. Rev, King led, and Ken was there.  On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. 

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