King's route to history took him through Chattanooga

King's route to history took him through Chattanooga

September 4th, 2011 by Yolanda Putman in News

The statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen unveiled from scaffolding during the soft opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, Monday, Aug. 22, 2011. The memorial will be dedicated Sunday, Aug. 28.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Martin Luther King, who is being honored with a 30-foot memorial in Washington, D.C., alongside other giants in U.S. history, once interviewed to be pastor of First Baptist Church in Chattanooga.

But the man who went on to become an icon in the nation's civil rights movement and deliver one of the most stirring speeches of all time wasn't hired.

"Maybe it was the Lord's will," said James Mapp, former longtime president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP. Mapp is writing a history of blacks in Chattanooga and the civil rights movement.

If King had come to Chattanooga, he might not have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement, said Mapp, and he might not have become the first black to have a monument on the National Mall. King's memorial spans four acres and is between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

King interviewed to become minister at First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street in 1953, Mapp said.

The young minister had graduated from Morehouse College, attended seminary and was working on his doctorate. But First Baptist overseers were concerned that, at age 24, King didn't have enough experience, Mapp recalled.

So First Baptist chose the Rev. H.H. Battle, and King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Ala., where he led the 1955 bus boycott.

King returned to Chattanooga in May 1962 as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to speak at its annual board meeting. The event was held in Memorial Auditorium.

The King memorial in Washington, D.C., was to have been dedicated Aug. 28 to mark the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That was where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech that includes the line, "Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee."

Hurricane Irene postponed the dedication until later this month or next. More than 250,000 people had been expected for the dedication, and dozens still turned out to see the statue despite the weather.

"It's a historic moment, a person of color who has a distinction of a place there, and the monument will last for years to come," said the Rev. Paul McDaniel, pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church and a former Hamilton County commissioner.

McDaniel, 81, also heads the Unity Group, a political action nonprofit that donated $1,000 toward the monument.

Now pastor of one of the largest black churches in Chattanooga, McDaniel was a 33-year-old New Jersey pastor when he attended the March on Washington in 1963. The vocal group Peter, Paul and Mary was singing when he entered the mall leading to the Washington Monument, he said.

The march was a turning point in the struggle for civil rights, McDaniel said.

"To come with that sort of celebration, it equipped you to know that hundreds of thousands are in the struggle and you are not alone. You felt energized to keep up the fight," he said.

After the march came passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legal segregation in schools, the workplace and places of public accommodation.

Mapp, then a 36-year-old NAACP president who had recently filed a school desegregation lawsuit against the Chattanooga Board of Education, rode the bus to attend the march.

"About 250,000 people were there," said Mapp. "One thing that stood out was that there were no arrests. It was peaceful. It was great."

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