Recalling the passion early in the civil rights movement

At Collingswood Presbyterian, people watch a video on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech.
At Collingswood Presbyterian, people watch a video on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 25, 2013

My window on the civil rights struggle of the 1960s was Huntley, Brinkley, and Life.

I was troubled by the dramatic images on the nightly news and in the weekly magazine - those stark scenes of black people drenched by fire hoses, menaced by police dogs, marching for their lives.

I had a reaction similar to that of Dennis Kolecki's three young sons when they watched "This Far by Faith," the video he created for an event Sunday at Collingswood Presbyterian Church.

"They had a lot of questions," said Kolecki, 38, a Williamstown High School health teacher who lives in Collingswood.

The notion of segregated schools "shocked" the boys, said their mother, Gretchen, the church's director of Christian education.

Powerful snippets of video and still photos compiled and edited by Kolecki helped set the tone for the church's 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington.

The service offered living history - two African American seniors recalled Jim Crow - while others took note of the history we're now living.

The day after the service, same-sex couples began to wed in Collingswood, and elsewhere in New Jersey. And the Rev. Blake Spencer spoke of making history himself as the first openly gay pastor of the Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church in Egg Harbor Township.

"We want not only to remember the past, but to challenge ourselves to stand for civil rights today," said Collingswood Presbyterian's pastor, the Rev. Katherine Killebrew, 59.

Her congregation hosted the 90-minute event with the Rev. Andy Gordon of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Collingswood. About 75 people attended.

"We're concerned about civil rights now," Killebrew said. "What about Trayvon Martin? What about Miss America [Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian descent] and those thousands of pieces of hate mail? Clearly, the dream is still calling to us."

Said Killebrew's husband, Gary Salmon: "We want to rekindle the flame, keep the dream alive, for another day, for another generation."

"This Far by Faith" is taken from the speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered for the ages in front of the Lincoln Memorial a half-century ago.

"There are . . . things about that speech that I feel even now," said the Rev. James F. Reese, who was in the crowd that day in Washington and spoke to the audience at Collingswood Presbyterian.

Reese, 89, of Cherry Hill, cited King's stirring words about sons of slaveholders and sons of slaves someday sharing a "table of brotherhood," as well as hope that people would be judged "by their character and not their color."

Reese went on to describe being one of two black men in a car driven by a white colleague and getting pulled over twice - within a few hundred feet - by a Virginia motorcycle cop after the march.

It was a reminder of how far we have come, as were the reminiscences of the Rev. Louisa Groce, 95, of Willingboro.

As a young, college-educated woman, she could not get a Philadelphia teaching job anywhere but in an all-black school. Groce eventually got hired by a "for coloreds-only" school in the South.

"I experienced all the insults and degradations accorded people of color," she said, her voice matter-of-fact.

The testimony of Groce and Reese was moving and memorable, like the footage and photos I so vividly remember. And after hearing their stories, I was able to meet the patrician lady and the gracious gentleman, shake their hands, and say thank you.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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