A hero remembered: Dowagiac carries on spirit of civil rights activist

Published 6:27 pm Monday, January 20, 2014

A group of marchers begin to sing while traveling down Indiana Avenue. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

A group of marchers begin to sing while traveling down Indiana Avenue. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

More than 40 years after his death, many of the locals who grew up listening to the speeches given by Martin Luther King Jr. still have vivid memories of the impact his work had on their childhood and beyond.

“I remember, as a little girl, sitting in front of my TV and watching when the marches came on and all that stuff,” said Beth Reum, pastor of the Silver Creek United Methodist Church. “It was all of that stuff, because I don’t think that white people got it, that people from different backgrounds and colors didn’t have the same opportunities that they did.”

While King’s words and actions did help bring about the end of institutionalized segregation in the U.S., Reum said the country is still walking the path toward complete racial equality.

“I think we have come a long way, but are we there yet? Not yet,” she said.

Reum was among the five religious leaders who led Sunday’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day March through Dowagiac. Around 30 people, from various backgrounds and walks of life, came together Sunday afternoon to celebrate the life and message of the civil rights activist by marching through the city streets, walking nearly a mile from Dowagiac City Hall on Front Street to Second Baptist Church on South Paul Street.

Escorted through the streets in a police vehicle driven by Public Safety Director Steven Grinnewald, the group was led by Gene Staples, the pastor of Second Baptist and the person responsible for organizing the march.

“In the words of Dr. King, we are going to walk non-violently to let the world and nation know,” Staples said. “We’re going to let Dowagiac know, even if it’s cold outside, that we will bond together as a community and celebrate the diversity that we have here.”

Also marching with the group was Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons, who gave a brief statement to the crowd about King’s accomplishments in front of city hall.

“We need to ask ourselves, how do we honor his legacy,” Lyons said. “We can do that by following in his footsteps, and becoming the best person you can possibly be.”

Once the procession reached their destination, they were ushered into the church’s chapel and were led in prayer by the clergy. Following the benediction, they served lunch in the church’s basement.

The churches involved in Sunday’s march were part of the local ACTION ministry network, an alliance of several area churches dedicated toward serving the greater community. For many of the pastors who participated, the teachings of King are just as relevant today as they were decades ago.

“[MLK Day] makes people reflect,” said Tracy Roddy, the pastor with New Life Faith Baptist Church. “You go back to remember what was going on at that time, with so much hatred, and how police reacted to people. Compared to today, when people not only get along, but there are friendships. People are able to get along with each other.”

Roddy said he has participated in every MLK Day march since New Life Faith was established four years ago. Another long time participant, Rob Lowe, the pastor of Federated Covenant Church, also helped lead the march this year.

“It was nice to see the larger representation from the pastoral community, compared to years past,” Lowe said. “I’m thankful to be part of an event like this, where the participants reflect the community we actually have.”

Since the march took a brief hiatus in 2013, Staples and the rest of Second Baptist church have doubled-down on their commitment to the march and to the celebration of the holiday. Next year, Staples said he wants to bring in a keynote speaker, and add a special breakfast in morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.