Almost 50 years ago the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee — the mother church of my denomination, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). On that evening of April 3, 1968, he told the men and women gathered there in support of striking sanitation workers how the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that, like Moses, he might not make it to the promised land with us, but urged us onward and forward.
The next day, he was gone.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance and influence of Dr. King in his time — he was the most outstanding moral leader and martyr of the 20th century. Through his leadership, his words and his deeds, he profoundly shaped the faith and determination of millions of young people to stand up and demand the full recognition of the civil and human rights they deserve. Guided by the example he set through his commitment to non-violence, he roused a generation, shook the conscience of the nation and forever transformed our society for the better. With him as our “Drum Major for Justice,” we ended legal segregation and mounted public opposition to the reign of terror plaguing the Southern United States. But today we say, his work was not finished.
This April 2-4, AFSCME, COGIC, and countless civil, faith and labor leaders will gather in Memphis for a series of events honoring Dr. King’s legacy and the courage and sacrifice of the sanitation workers he was there to support who railed to the cry of “I AM A MAN.” We see this not only a time of commemoration and honor but also as a time for recommitment and renewal—as the catalyst for a national movement to carry Dr. King’s work and legacy into 2018 and beyond as we ask a new generation to rally to “I AM 2018.”
The I AM 2018 campaign is the call to action that our country needs right now. Through this effort, we are seeking to prepare a new generation of activist to make change in their community. With trainings, we will mobilize and motivate voters to hold their elected leaders accountable in the mid-term election and beyond. And we are issuing an urgent call to fight poverty and prejudice, and advance the freedom of all working people and communities of color.
Making real and measurable change in American communities is part of our history at COGIC. In Los Angeles, we’re putting a group of at-risk youth on the path to success with academic support, job training and community engagement. In Chicago, we are engaging directly with gang members to tackle the root causes of gun violence and crime. In Texas, we opened a 50,000 square foot warehouse where Texas pastors helped families struggling to recover from Hurricane Harvey get food, water and clothing. We see I AM 2018 building on and expanding that good work our congregants and communities have been doing through those local initiatives that help millions around the country live better and more peaceful lives every day.
I preached my first sermon in the summer of 1957, just as the civil rights movement that would come to shape the 1960s got underway. Back then, I could have scarcely imagined the sweeping changes and progress we would make towards racial justice in my lifetime. But while progress has been made, it is not complete nor is it permanent. Still too many people feel they don’t have a voice and the system is stacked against them. Still too many people lack access to adequate education and economic opportunity. Still too often the law treats some of us differently than others.
This is why we must work to support and grow leaders who are ready to take the reins and move us further down the path to the promised land.
Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. is the Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). COGIC is one of the oldest and largest Pentacostal denominations in the world with churches in 87 countries worldwide and a membership of nearly 6.5 million adherents.