My memoir, “Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism,” includes a story about the experience of being invited to speak at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the church pastored by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly after I moved to Montgomery and became executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.
On that Sunday morning when I arrived at the church, I had no idea that there would be a large crowd of worshippers and visitors. They came to hear the new African American female editor in town. This exerpt from “Coming Full Circle” is about that memorable day.
“Of all the speeches I made in Montgomery, the one I recall the most was at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Some of our new Montgomery friends who were members had invited us to worship there as soon as we moved to the city, and I recall thinking that, like a lot of churches in city centers where neighborhoods were displaced by suburban growth, the church must be in decline because the sanctuary was never full on the Sundays when we visited. So I wasn’t too worried about speaking there to what I thought would be a small congregation.
“The service on Sunday, September 26, 2004, was Women’s Leadership Day and I was asked to share insight about my leadership experience, with hopes of inspiring women as leaders. The church made it widely known in the community that the new black female editor of the Montgomery Advertiser would be making her first public speech at Dexter Church. All week long my face was becoming recognized through stories about my arrival, and people who saw me in the grocery store, at events around town or even in our building at work said, ‘I hear you’re speaking at Dexter Church. I’m planning to come.’
“When we went upstairs to the sanctuary I wasn’t prepared for what I saw as the service began. The church was packed; every pew was full. I mean packed with people standing and filling the back wall packed. A multiracial crowd had come to hear me speak.
“I began by reading my prepared remaks, but looking out over the crowded sanctuary I suddenly realized that people wanted to know more about me. They were present to celebrate this new face in Montgomery — a face that was female and African American. As I I started to feel the emotions of where I had come from and where I was in my career and in life, I felt the need to change course. Though the crowd was large, the sanctuary suddenly felt small and cozy, like a good place to have a conversation, not a speech. I closed the pages of my prepared speech and announced that I would not be reading what I had written. The emotional significance of that day and that place – the same podium that Dr. King used to preach the Gospel of God’s love and civil rights overcame me. I was choking up and I had to get my composure. When I finally began to speak again the words came strictly from my heart. No notes, no prepared text. I just talked.
“I told the group about my upbringing in Savannah under the restrictive Jim Crow laws, something those who grew up in Montgomery could identify with. I shared my passion for journalism and why I wanted to be executive editor in Montgomery. I gave them an overview of every newspaper and every university where I had worked — why I stayed and why I left each one. I talked about why it was important for newspapers and all media to reflect the communities they serve. I talked about what I hoped to accomplish in Montgomery, to use the newspaper to bring the community closer together and to inform them through stories not about just the big things happening in the community, but also to highlight people and organizations that don’t normally rise to the level of coverage in a daily newspaper. I told them about my passion for mentoring young people to help them skip over some of the landmines I had encountered. I mentioned Shelby and promised that many of them would get to meet our daughter when she visited, and I introduced [my husband] Lloyd and told the group how much I hoped they would embrace both of us as new citizens of the community.”
The rest of the story in “Coming Full Circle” about that day goes on to describe a visitor to the pulpit after I stopped talking, not a celebrity but someone who walked up to me and thanked me in a frightenly unusal way.