Last year an audience of about 400 people gathered in a Fort Worth hotel ballroom and came face to face with an important part of America’s history.
Before that evening, most of them certainly knew of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which knocked down the concept of “separate-but-equal” public schools. But they did not know the people bearing the last name of the lead plaintiff in the suit.
That audience had the chance to hear from two sisters who were students in Topeka, Kan., and were forced to go to segregated schools before their father and others sued the school board. The Rev. Oliver L. Brown was listed first on the legal document because he was the only male plaintiff, the sisters said.
Cheryl Brown Henderson and Linda Brown Thompson captivated the audience with their account of events leading up to and following that 1954 Supreme Court decision.
That education fight 60 years ago was especially appropriate for this gathering, which was the annual event to raise scholarship money for New Rising Star Baptist Church. The Raymond B. Spencer Scholarship Banquet, usually held in February, has provided scholarships for 28 students in eight years, with 15 students currently attending college.
The scholarship is named for the first full-time African-American professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who served as assistant to the pastor of New Rising Star before his death in 2003 at age 39.
In keeping with its theme of connecting audiences to African-American history, the church invited another civil-rights giant for this year’s event.
The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles is the last surviving person who was on the motel balcony in Memphis when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot. Kyles had come to pick up King and take him to his house for dinner where his wife and other women had prepared a “soul food” feast for King and his close associates.
As usual, King was running late, Kyle told me in an interview four years ago.
Kyle, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, said that he and King had been joking and “talking preacher talk” the evening of April 4, 1968, and that they walked out on the balcony shortly after 6 p.m. He said he had just turned toward the balcony steps when the shot rang out, and he turned to see King felled by a bullet — “a gaping whole in the right side of his face … a bigger wound [from the same bullet] under his shirt.”
For a long time Kyle asked himself why he had been placed at that scene, and he said God later revealed to him why he was present:
“Crucifixions have to have a witnesses. I was there to be a witness — an honest witness, because a lying witness is dangerous.”
Kyle has told his story all over the country, but unfortunately he won’t be in Fort Worth to give his account of that awful tragedy. For health reasons, he had to cancel his appearance here, forcing banquet organizers to postpone the event.
The scholarship banquet has been rescheduled for 7 p.m. April 11 at the Hilton Fort Worth, and though the new keynote speaker is not a civil-rights icon, he is a distinguished celebrity in his own right.
Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, is a prolific writer and one of the most provocative social commentators in the country.
The author of numerous books, he is a regular fixture on network and cable news shows, talking expertly about issues like race, politics and societal ills.
Although this year’s banquet audience will miss Kyle’s presence, they are not likely to be disappointed by Dyson’s dynamic oratory.
For ticket information call 817-531-2835, or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.