Let the Trumpet Sound

A White Cleric's Tribute to the Drum Major

by Bishop C. Joseph Sprague

Bishop Sprague was asked to keynote the Ohio Wesleyan University and Delaware County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration in 2007. He delivered this speech at the William Street United Methodist Church. It was published in The Conscious Voice Magazine, in Winter 2008.


Bishop C. Joseph Sprague served in the episcopacy after 27 years as a pastor and seven years as an ecumenical officer. He was elected to the episcopacy in 1996 and was assigned Bishop to the Chicago Episcopal Area and the Northern Illinois Conference until he retired in 2004. He is known in the church and elsewhere for combining biblical scholarship, personal piety, preaching and teaching with social justice ministries and commitment.


More than a year ago, Dr. Everett Tilson extended your MLK Committee’s gracious invitation for me to speak today. Despite vexing questions in my mind about the appropriateness of a white person fulfilling this role, I readily accepted. I did so out of forty-five years of profound respect for Everett. After all, he remained the teacher and I was still the student. And, I quickly agreed to be here, as well, because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a generational distance, and a number of his colleagues in the Movement, up close and personal, particularly the Revs. Otis Moss, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Lawson, E. O. Thomas, and Jesse Jackson helped to shape the contours of my lifetime of ministry. Little did we know, when Everett placed that call in customary, well-in-advance Everett fashion, that his death would preclude his physical presence here today.

But, as his spirit pervades this event, what follows is offered in memory of Dr. Everett Tilson, teacher and cajoler, friend and irascible troubler of conscience and practice. Everett, this one is for you with deep gratitude and abiding respect.


Following Dr. King’s assassination on April 4th, and two subsequent urban upheavals in Cincinnati, late in the Spring of 1968, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss and I were eating breakfast together at the Vernon Manor Hotel in the Queen city. The topic of conversation was what the churches - black and white, Protestant and Roman Catholic - and the synagogues - Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed - could do together to address the systemic causes of the so–called riots and, hence, help to quell the violence on Cincinnati’s streets. Dr. Joseph Link, prominent Cincinnati physician of that era and the then relatively new owner of the Vernon Manor Hotel, was pouring coffee in the hotel’s dining room, as had become is custom. “Would you boys like more coffee,” Dr. Link graciously inquired as he approached our table. We blinked and nodded affirmatively. Dr. Link then moved a few feet to the next table. With coffee pot in tow, he asked the four, white, male customers seated there, “Would you gentlemen like more coffee?” I do not recall their response, but I shall never forget that of Dr. Moss. With a grimace of perception and without a word, he summoned Dr. Link to our table. “Sir,” Dr. Moss asked courteously, “I would like to inquire as to what intervened in your history between our table and theirs that made them “gentlemen” and rendered us “boys?” Shaken, incredulous even, Dr. Link was silent for a time. Then, regaining equilibrium, he said, “That was rude and insensitive if me.  I apologize and promise you that never again shall I call any man, “boy.” Something had indeed intervened in the life and history of Dr. Joseph Link. But, he was not the only white person as that table, or of that era, who was confronted and changed dramatically by the disconcerting, reorienting spirit of the Lord mediated through that tough, yet tender, witness of the Drum Major for Justice, his minion of lead trumpeters like Revs. Moss, Shuttlesworth, Lawson, Jackson, Young, Abernathy, Lewis, and a host of other black clergy and the heroic laity, especially the quite old and very young of the historic black church, who marched with the Movement to Freedom’s undeniable and relentless beat.

My life and ministry, like those of other white clergy privileged to have been there in Selma, Jackson, and hosts of other places, South and North, were changed forever by the witness of the Drum Major, his lead trumpeters in the Movement Band, and a few white band members,
like Everett Tilson, who implored us to hear, believe and eventually integrate into the very fabric of our beings the intervening Word of the Lord, which forever turned the tables of our lives, as we gained equilibrium and realized that, “The Spirit of the lord has anointed (us); . . . has sent (us) to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoner.” (Isaiah 61: 1b -2)

On this occasion, it would not be appropriate for this white cleric to presume to detail what Dr. King and his trumpeters of justice in the Movement Band did for and mean to black people. That story must be told from the black experience. But, what is appropriate this afternoon is for me to “Let the Trumpet Sound,” as I express, explicitly and implicitly, "A White Cleric’s Gratitude for the Drum Major" - - his lead trumpeters and at least one white fellow traveler, who marching stride for stride, side by side, proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.  



Visiting Afghanistan in 2002, an part of an interfaith delegations of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, I watched Halo Trust, that nonprofit, land–mines sweeping entity, popularized by Princess Diana, detonate the one millionth land mine it had swept worldwide, 750,000 in Afghanistan alone! Our delegation walked live mine fields, saw the remains of a few of the 12,000 obliterated villages, witnessed the absence of a functional, national infrastructure, spent considerable time in Afghan homes and heard innumerable stories from children about their personal experiences with the horror of war. In my study hangs the crude, but eloquent, crayon drawing of a 10-year old Afghan boy. The drawing depicts my young friend’s recollection of watching the US bomb fall onto his small farm home, killing his parents, siblings, and farm animals. The words of another 10-year old, a precocious student, who was maimed while playing with a US cluster bomb he mistook for a toy, reverberate in my soul: “Some day,” he told us, “I’m going to help turn my country back into gold." Sights of hundreds of orphans, mangled by land mines and other killing devices, are wedged indelibly in my psyche.

So it was that in the early summer of 2002, I returned to Chicago from Kabul City, while the war drums in Washington were beating for a preemptive strike against Iraq. I was convinced that our antiwar movement needed to gain significant momentum. And it did, as 10,000 of us turned out to question the morality of the first strike, preemptive war making. As Christians and Muslims, we questioned the morality of a war based on the supposed ties between El Quaeda and Iraq and the unverified assertion by the Bush administration that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction. We said that such a senseless war would only drive countless moderate and even liberal Muslims into the arms of Islamist fanatics. But, like thousands of other protesters across the country, and millions around the globe, we were dismissed as a mere focus group, while the fourth estate, which was but an extension of the Bush Estate, barely reported our informed protestations.

Arrested in Washington D.C., literally between two female Noble Peace Prize laureates, and wondering what a nice guy like me – and a bishop at that - was doing in jail, I saw in my mind’s eye, Dr. King’s words, long ago framed and hung in a conspicuous place in our home, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

It is easy on such occasions as this to gloss over the historic reality that, when Dr. King forthrightly denounced the War in Viet Nam, he was widely criticized within the black community and across the liberal white community. Needless to say, he was skewered in other circles. His antiwar stand was far from popular, only right. It was consistent with who he was and emblematic of all for which he stood. He had seen, long before it became obvious, that war, poverty, and racism were/are siamese triplets, joined at the hip, thus crippling Freedom’s march and sapping to very life blood from the American soul. And so he said,

"It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to return to her true home… of peaceful pursuits. We cannot remain silent as our nation engages in one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars. During these days of human travail we must encourage creative dissenters. We need them because the thunder of their fearless voices will be the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria."

The Drum major called me, and a host of other, black and white, brown, red, and yellow, to turn the tables on our comfortable lives and arise from compliant silence in order to embrace engaged and informed protest. This, many of us did back then. But, the question before us, now, is weather instead of merely venerating the King on such occasions as this – which is idolatry - we will dare to march with the Drum Major to the beat of nonviolent, engaged and informed opposition to senseless war making, Who me? Who you? As Everett would say,
To ask the question is to answer it.


***A White Cleric's Tribute continued: POVERTY >>

ptember 3, 2015
at 6 PM at the Siegel Center, Richmond, VA





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