Hidden History: Indianapolis reverend recalls lessons learned from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Black History Month

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Let’s take a walk in history through the eyes of an Indianapolis reverend who was up-front with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While the Civil Rights Act had just been passed in the late 1960s, segregation and racism were still rampant. The Reverend Mel Jackson had just met King, but what happened next changed Jackson’s life.

It was Chicago, 1964. A young Jackson was training with American community organizer Saul Alinsky, widely regarded as the founder of organizing people for change.

One night, Jackson was at a small group meeting in Chicago with just seven people and a special invited guest–that guest was King.

The first words Jackson said to King were memorable.

“I told him I thought he was a wimp,” Jackson, now 88 years old, said. “I thought he should be ashamed of himself, leading people to get beat upside the head and all that sort of thing. King was such a patient man, he wasn’t ruffled.”

Jackson, 35 years old at the time, had recently gotten out of the military.

“When I got out, I was an angry man,” Jackson said. “I went into the service in a tightly-regulated, segregated society and came out with that same condition.”

Soon after, Jackson left his home in Dayton, Ohio, and traveled to the Midwest, organizing his own civil rights demonstrations at factories and business offices.

“Black people were not in charge of anything,” Jackson said. “We were the lowest level with the least pay and were simply disrespected.”

Jackson said King told him about something different, fundamentally changing how the nation’s system operates.

“It helped me to understand, to read more, to think more, to plan with more people,” Jackson said earnestly. “To really get a grip on the whole idea of institutional change.”

Fast forward to 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Jackson marched with King, demanding racial equality. That’s when King told Jackson something that completely changed his philosophy.

“He said if a man doesn’t have anything to die for, he really is not fit to live. Boy, that gripped me,” Jackson said. “He said I’m willing to die for people I love. He said Christ died for all of us. The guy had me with tears in my eye.”

That wasn’t the only thing King told Jackson that stuck with him.

“‘I know that I’m going to die. I don’t know when,’ he said. But if dying is to help people to live, he said yesterday, tomorrow won’t be too soon,” Jackson said earnestly.

That tragedy came true April 4, 1968, the day King was assassinated at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. Jackson’s buddy broke the news to him in Chicago.

“He said Martin Luther King is dead,” Jackson said. “All hell broke loose that night on the west side of Chicago.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson called King “the apostle of nonviolence.”

“I’m sure that the meeting with King, and his attitude toward humanity with disregard to what a person looks like, or what their conditions are, that love really has no barriers,” Jackson said.

Fifty years later, Jackson says that King’s words still resonate hope.

Through his time with King, Jackson said he learned that love is about being willing to give all you are for the betterment of your fellow man.

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