Great Barrington — It was a full church on this holy day as both the clergy and community celebrated the man and something he put his heart into in the years before his 1968 assassination: the nuts and bolts of economic power and equality for African Americans and all American working people.
In this 18th Annual Interfaith Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy at First Congregational Church, and the sun poured in through stained glass as if filtered through him. The Celebration was organized by the Southern Berkshire Clergy Association and Interfaith Committee of Southern Berkshire, and supported by many local businesses and organizations.
Hearts were warm and music poured forth. One song in particular made everyone remember that while this town may be lacking in color, its African American history is rich. The words to Lift Every Voice and Sing, the African American National Anthem, were written by civil rights leader and writer James Weldon Johnson who had a summer home off Alford Road where he found the quiet to write.
Writer, scholar and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois was born here, had attended First Congregational Church and Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, the first African American church in Berkshire County. Decades before King started to talk about racial and economic justice, Du Bois was already on it.
In fact, both King and Du Bois wrote speeches on this topic called “Where Do We Go From Here?” Du Bois in 1933, and King in 1967, said guest speaker Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College, of the City University of New York (CUNY).
Nembhard’s presentation was all about the cooperative economic model that has been practiced by African Americans since the 1800s. In her book Collective Courage, A History of African American Economic Thought and Practice, she hunted down examples of it, and said there were plenty that she never even found.
Du Bois, she said, had advocated this way back when. “He challenged blacks…said we can lead the way in the USA as cooperators…we could enter the city as men and women and not mules.”
And then there was King. Nembhard said he knew that civil rights and war were “just symptoms of a system that doesn’t value people.”
“I’m here to talk about the new way,” she added. “It’s not actually new, it’s an old way.”
Nembhard said she was inspired by Du Bois long before she became a scholar herself. Her father is Edmund Gordon, the influential Yale University psychology professor who was mentored by W.E.B. Du Bois, and came to Great Barrington in the 1960s to dedicate the Du Bois home site as a historical site. Gordon attended Monday’s celebration.
Nembhard said the racial economic divide has put African Americans at a “crossroads.” She also said Americans as a whole are struggling. Since it’s been measured, she said, “wealth inequality is at its highest…the current system isn’t working for most of us.”
Even in 1968, just before his assassination in Memphis, King had directed his work to this, knowing it was the heart of the matter, and not just for African Americans, Nembhard said. King had gone to Memphis to talk to striking sanitation workers, she noted. And this is some of what he said to those workers that day in Memphis:
“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working everyday? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”
On another occasion, King had said this: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
With regard to the racial component of economic inequality, she said Du Bois knew the cooperative model was a powerful way to go beyond mere survival and into economic independence, “to allow you to do other things in world for communities and the race.”
She said it was particularly important to have the engagement of black youth to keep these ideas and mechanisms flowing.
So on this bright day people of different color and religion came to the church in this spirit of helping each other, just what King would have wanted. They even collectively
raised $2,000 in a goodwill offering for both the Reclaiming our Cooperative Heritage program at Housatonic Heritage, and the historic Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, which nearly fell down last fall before a group of local citizens started a push to save it. Board President Wray Gunn, one of about seven remaining congregants, said the group had already raised $45,000, and needs about $55,000 more to finalize the purchase.
King said people had to work together because in the end, as humans, we’re all in the same boat. First Congregational’s Reverend Charles Van Ausdall quoted him on this: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny.”