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We discovered MLK at a church with no God

MLK Day
National Civil Rights Museum

During my college years, I sang with the Men's Glee Club, mostly classic vocals and many freedom songs inspired by the still lingering memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The preacher was gone six years when the club crossed the Mason-Dixon line from Cincinnati for a grand tour of the South. Our destination was New Orleans; in between was a series of performances in auditoriums and church halls from Kentucky to Mississippi.

It was 1974, but--as we baritones and tenors were soon to learn--it might as well have been 1934 in such towns as Welch, W. Va., and Veramayne, Tenn.

"Well, that's MLK with me!"

Arriving one afternoon in the latter community, we were greeted by the local church leaders. It was in their house of worship that we would perform our nightly repertory of show tunes, ballads, and folk songs. Our conductor was always first off the bus. Bill Ermey, thin as a reed, endowed with an iron will that kept our libidos at bay even as our voices were in sync, would make the preliminary arrangements as to set up, equipment checks, and housing.

In this Tennessee borough, however, Bill ran into a little bit of a problem. The town fathers and mothers had peered into the windows of our charter bus and, alas, noticed a sprinkling of black faces among us fifty young men. They gathered into a tight circle of discussion and duplicity as we boys peered out the window. Two or three of them pulled Bill aside, away from the bus and spoke to him. There would apparently be no houses available for the "Negro boys" to lodge in.

I remember Bill's face as he dragged himself up the steps of the bus. The late afternoon sun emphasized his paleness and pain. "They won't let us all sleep in their homes," he spoke in agony over the static-filled microphone. "Our black members are supposed to spend the night in the motel down the road."

"And they expect us to think of their church as a house of God!" called out Larry Tidrow from the rear, already contemplating his career as a Baptist preacher. But his sentiment was being echoed in the throats and hearts of every one of us who sat, stunned, in a Greyhound bus that was now the vehicle of a new and dreadful awareness.

"Well, boys," said Bill now, his voice suddenly strong and clear, "I'm your leader. And I say that if we can't all sleep in their houses, then none of us can sing in their church." In the dim light, I saw that Bill's normally pasty face shone with something I had not seen before.

"Well, that's MLK with me!" chimed in the irrepressible Reverend Tidrow.

A burst of cheering and applause rocked the bus, along with a booming cadence of "It's MLK with me!" Bill turned his narrow back around in the doorway, leaned out, and yelled to the nearby cluster of church leaders:

"We're sorry, people, but we will not be singing here tonight. But we do propose that you have a meeting tonight in your church and ask God why these nice boys lost their voices while passing through this town of yours."

The University of Cincinnati Men's Glee Club wound up sleeping aboard the Greyhound that night, parked alongside US 231 in a rather dreary roadside stop that sucked in the darkness. We, however, laughed and sang and eventually slept as cheerfully as our teacher's convictions had been inspired back down the road at a church with no God.

www.benkamin.com

[This article is reprinted from an original edition that appeared in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.]

Ben Kamin's newest book, 'DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and The Kennedy Brothers,' will be published in April.