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When Dr King dropped in

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Role model: Martin Luther King’s interests in economic empowerment and the betterment of inner-city communities drew him to Bermuda’s own Canon James Francis, who had devoted years to poor neighbourhoods

Martin Luther King, Jr, the American Civil Rights leader who was assassinated in 1968, would have turned 87 today.

Dr King’s work extended far beyond battling segregation: he campaigned for economic empowerment and the betterment of inner-city communities.

This drew Dr King to the work of Bermuda’s own Canon James Francis who, as a priest in the episcopalian church in the United States, devoted many years to poor neighbourhoods.

“He was known as the ‘hoodlum priest’, because he would go everywhere, among everybody, mobilising people, kind of like some of the work Dr King did,” his nephew, Elbert Richardson, recalled.

In the 1960s, Mr Richardson went to live in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his uncle, then known as Father Francis, and his wife Audrée.

One area where Canon Francis often went to help families was the predominantly black neighbourhood Lincoln Heights, which was “a rough place”, Mr Richardson said.

Rex Darrell, then a young Bermudian student living close by, recalled the notoriety of Lincoln Heights as “one of the worst black communities in America”.

“Canon Francis had a reputation in that area of Ohio for the contributions he made,” Mr Darrell said. “He was dealing with families, helping people get organised.”

Mr Darrell lived nearby in Dayton with his uncle Winton Williams, a Bermudian educator.

Both men had abundant experience with the racial climate of the day, he said, recalling how Mr Williams had previously been “run out of town” in Camden, South Carolina, where he had been in charge of a predominantly black school.

Hostile white residents had once tried to force his car off the road, Mr Darrell said — while his own presence at the lunch counter in a Walgreen’s Drug Store resulted in the police being called.

In that instance, Mr Darrell remembered being questioned by deputy sheriffs who were bemused to discover that he was Bermudian, and ultimately led him back inside.

“But black people were not allowed to sit at the counter,” he added.

Come 1963, when Dr King took interest in the work of Canon Francis in Lincoln Heights, the preacher from Georgia was viewed as “a good preacher, a motivator, but with nowhere near the prominence that he gained later”, Mr Darrell said.

“There were a lot of people that simply didn’t believe in his philosophy of nonviolence. But the word got to him about what Canon Francis was doing in the community. Whether or not that was the sole reason Dr King came, I suspect so. But he was noteworthy throughout the whole area.”

Invited by Canon Francis, Mr Darrell and his uncle drove 70 miles to hear Dr King speak at a gathering of Cincinnati churches. “His speech was spiritual,” Mr Darrell said. “I can’t remember the details, but with the booming voice that he had, he certainly got your attention.”

Dr King viewed Canon Francis’s work with the community in Lincoln Heights as an example of what could be achieved elsewhere, said Glenn Fubler of the community group Imagine Bermuda.

“More than removing segregation, Dr King was looking to develop communities,” Mr Fubler said.

“The state of the church that Canon Francis had taken over was bad; there were some who thought the church and school might have to be closed down, but he was able to revive both.”

The famous March on Washington came next, where Dr King’s “I Have a Dream” speech propelled him to national and global prominence.

Five years after the young Mr Darrell was able to listen to his words, Dr King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Days later, the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Dr King’s legacy will be marked on Monday, which is observed as Martin Luther King Day.

(From left) Elbert Richardson and Rex Darrell (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)