Any candidate who wants black votes better show up, after all. An array of elected officials sits regally in giant wooden chairs behind the pulpit, and it's fun to speculate about who's in and who's out at least among the city's powerful black ministers by what sort of attention they get from the Rev. Nelson "Fuzzy" Thompson, president of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which sponsors this celebration). Thompson is always an entertaining MC, lording over a procession of ministers and politicos throughout the evening.
"Dignitaries" may be front-and-center, but the most important people are the ones out in the packed sanctuary. There, black people and white people smile at one another. Elderly ladies are dressed to the nines. Little kids look like hope itself. And when the music starts up, it feels like heaven.
This year, the kickoff honors go to the Rev. Kim Gladney and his choir from Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church. Gladney grabs the microphone, proclaiming "I'm a Baptist, and I'm gonna holler!" and his voice nearly splits the church in half. His choir is clapping and swaying in royal-blue robes, and before long almost everyone is on their feet (even us white people). The elderly ladies have their hands in the air, a woman a few rows down is shaking her tambourine, and the whole sanctuary is moving with the spirit.
Which white politicians proceed to kill.
It starts with Howard Dean yes, that Howard Dean, the head of the Democratic National Committee who is apparently on a base-rallying stop in Kansas City and, Thompson informs us, had called at the last minute and asked to speak. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver appears to be his chaperone; as Cleaver's rambling introduction winds around to the guest from the DNC, his voice grows louder and louder in a funny take on Dean's notoriously excited Iowa speech. Finally, Cleaver himself is screaming, "Governor, these people can handle excitement!" Now, the annual MLK celebration may be awash in Democratic politics, but Dean's speech is beyond the pale. He pimps auditor Claire McCaskill as Missouri's next senator. He proclaims that a return of integrity to Washington is only as far away as November's elections. In a comment that seems wholly inappropriate for a King celebration, he calls for a strong national defense (justifying the idea by promising to tell soldiers the truth about why they're dying). Other than perfunctorily citing King's "Letter From the Birmingham Jail," he generally despoils Kansas City's best night of the year with what sounds like a canned stump speech he's delivering in Anywhere, U.S.A.
The congregation, being used to this sort of thing, claps politely when he steps down. But for the record: The sweet but bland Korean Choir that follows him gets a more enthusiastic response than Howard Dean.
The shameless hijacking of Dr. King's event intensifies a few minutes later, when Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields gets up to speak. She starts out innocuously, noting that America tends to "sanitize and trivialize our heroes," reducing their messages to "bumper stickers for our SUVs" and their causes to "three-day shopping weekends." Americans are celebrating King's vision of equality while ignoring his larger message about peace and economic justice, she notes.
But then she turns to the topic of herself.
Lately, she's had occasion to understand the kind of courage it took for Dr. King to carry on, Shields says. "For the last two years, I've been the subject of a rather intense federal investigation...."
Huh uh. You are not. You are not going to compare yourself to Martin Luther King Jr.
Yeah, she is. The upshot of the investigation, Shields says, is that "I did nothing illegal." But she now personally understands how Martin Luther King Jr. prevailed despite people trying to destroy his reputation. She knows what it feels like to live in fear fear for her reputation, fear for her children, fear that people would believe all the lies.
Some days it was hard not to let the fear paralyze her, Shields continues, as if her tribulations really have something to do with this celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. But her Christian upbringing taught her to have hope. "I could do nothing about what others did, but I could control the kind of job I did and went on to work on the important jobs as Jackson County executive."
Shields reaches for relevance by noting how the whole country is overrun by fear, but her call for "new leaders" is just more disingenuous Democratic grandstanding.
And she works back around to the county exec job, talking about fixing roads and potholes. Yes, she does. We'll call it her "I Have a Road Grader" speech, in honor of Dr. King.
By now, a few folks in the back of the sanctuary are quietly grumbling.
Shields may be innocent of whatever the FBI was investigating, but she ought to be locked up for committing a crime of massive arrogance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Later in the week, Shields won't respond to a phone message from the Pitch seeking comment.)
The mood is so dead that even the SCLC Choir's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" can't resurrect it; after a few more songs fail to do much rousing, Thompson asks the congregation to stand for a little exercise.
The night has a long way to go, after all. There are plates to be passed, and there's an actual sermon, from Myron McCoy, president of Kansas City's St. Paul School of Theology. McCoy is dignified, he's thoughtful, and he actually delivers some King-inspired advice for how we might lift up the country. Learn other languages. Eat dinner with strangers. Quit the addiction to violence. And fight "economic violence" against poor people.
That's the good stuff. A speech the whole city needs to hear. But the sanctuary is less packed than it was nearly three hours ago. Unable to hold up any longer, families long ago began drifting down the aisles and out the doors.
Those of us who remain are tired, but we reap our reward in Michael Charles' gospel classics. Soon enough, we're all swaying in unison to Free-dom ... free-dom ... oh, freedom after a while ...
What we really need freedom from is white people in the St. Stephen pulpit next year. And here's another prayer for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2007: that all the politicians have to sit in the back of the church.