IN THE MIDDLE of Oklahoma City stands a church. Its three-story exterior is sheltered by red brick with parapets pointing toward the heavens. Adjacent, jutting up from the concrete and striking distance from the intersection of 2nd and Walnut, is a blue sign with buzzing neon displaying the words Calvary Baptist Church.
Large white doors welcome visitors into this historic house of worship. Wandering up the stairs and inside the sanctuary, one is treated to imposing stain glass windows, a wooden floor, and wooden pews.
Having stood since 1921, the history that the Calvary Baptist Church has seen in the last, roughly, hundred years is rather formidable. It played an outsized role in the civil rights movement and was also pivotal in a rather unique way: it once turned away a young man, a young man who would help shape history like few others.
THE CALVARY BAPTIST CHURCH stands in an area of Oklahoma City known as Deep Deuce. In the former part of the last century, the area was a vibrant congregation for the city’s African-American population.
Deep Deuce became a business and entertainment center for those denied access to white-only restaurants and stores. It was the home of a thriving jazz scene, helping to birth the careers of Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian and hosting jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Novelist Ralph Ellison was raised there. In the center was the Calvary Baptist Church which stood as a religious and social center for this vivacious community.
Then 24 years old, Martin Luther King Jr. was a recent graduate of the Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania where he had earned a Bachelor in Divinity in 1951. He came to Calvary Baptist seeking employment. He preached at the church, but he left, apparently, a lukewarm impression. He was not accepted to become the church’s full-time pastor, chiefly, because of his age.
“I interviewed one of the senior deacons,” historian Currie Ballard recalled to The Oklahoman.”He said, ‘Well, Ballard, the reason we didn’t hire Dr. King is he didn’t have enough gravy.’ I asked what he meant. He said, ‘He just wasn’t old enough.'”
Two years later, in December of 1955, a woman named Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man. Her refusal, like a match to flint, helped to ignite a movement and propel King toward becoming the driving force of a historic tidal wave.
In 1960, King would return to the Calvary Baptist Church to speak at a “freedom rally” in front of 1,500 people.
Three years later, a decade after his inquiries into employment at the Calvary Baptist Church, he would stand at the feet of Lincoln, and in front of more than a quarter million people tell the American nation and the rest of the world of a bold and incorruptible dream.
THERE OF COURSE is a lesson here. It is one that streams through stain glass, shakes a wooden church pew, smashes musical notes alongside an enthusiastic choir, and proudly proclaims itself in red ink in the gold-edged pages of a well-worn Bible.
I have no idea how Dr. King felt in 1953, when he, like every person who has at some point pursued employment, was turned away from a job. I do know this. The Almighty is always working, and it is rarely on our timeline.
Every breath we take, every moment we live, every footstep we walk, is preparing us for something. There will be that moment when we are called. It will come, when a finger is pointed in our direction and a booming baritone bellows, “you’re up, kid.”
It is everything that comes before that moment that steels us for providence’s call. It is the disappointments, the heartbreaks, and the failures, the lessons we learn both enormous and insignificant, and that small voice of resolve that whispers in our ear when the winds of opposition that push against us seem too strong to overcome. It is with a hammer and heat the Lord is forging his weapon. Only when it is ready, will He wield it.
When Dr. King marched onto the steps of that marble monument, the collective ears of a nation open, what prepared him? What helped his words carry? What force thrust forward that dynamic spectacle?
When his unwavering voice propelled the words “I have a dream…one day right in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” was he considering the friend he lost at the age of six because they had to attend separate, segregated schools?
When those words flowed from his lips did he recall the anger he felt that first time he was forced to vacate his seat on a bus for a white passenger? “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.“
Did the nights he spent behind bars, the death threats, and the peaks of prejudice, his collective experience and the trials he’d faced, every moment of those 34 years, fortify him to expertly broadcast the words of a warrior in a struggle to soften the hearts of men and open doors of progress?
These questions, like King’s dream, float around us, in some ways, unanswered. This, much like his dream, which in many respects, remains still unfulfilled. Yet King gave us a beacon for which to strive toward, a mountain on which to climb, a light for which to guide us through a tunnel of dimness. Only those days in which we take a step forward toward that beacon, into that light, up that mountain, can be considered righteous.
When King’s words echoed that day in 1963 across the American continent, “from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania…from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado…from the curvaceous slopes of California”, there was a spirit listening intensely. This spirit sat serenely on a church pew inside a Baptist church in the Deep Deuce area of Oklahoma City. Maybe it heard King’s words on a crackling radio. Maybe it heard them through a device belonging solely to the divine. In any case, it heard those words and offered affirmation. Thy will be done.
THE CALVARY BAPTIST CHURCH was also pivotal, in its own right, to the civil rights movement in Oklahoma and beyond. It hosted sessions of the national convention of the NAACP in the summer of 1952, a convention that was headlined by Hubert H. Humphrey, then the US senator from Minnesota and Thurgood Marshall who would later become a justice of the US Supreme Court. It also became a central rallying point for successful sit-ins that took place in Oklahoma City in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Calvary was damaged in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Oklahoma City allocated $1.4 million in federal disaster funds to help with repairs.
In 2013, the church, crumbling from years of neglect, was bought by a law firm who has helped fund its renovation.
In early November of last year, the Calvary Baptist Church played host to a concert. In attendance was US Senator James Lankford and other luminaries from around the city and beyond. Also crammed into that sanctuary were young and old, black and white, some of affluence and some not. The concert was a celebration of a book, the Bible. The evening ended with a chorus of performers singing a classic spiritual. The voices included musicians of different genres, seasons of life, and colors of skin. Joining them was a congregation of people who had risen from wooden church pews to their feet. And they all sang and clapped, the words bouncing from one end of the historic sanctuary to the other:
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine,
Let it shine,
Let it shine!