The Rev. Luther Ivory told a crowd gathered at Alcoa High School to celebrate the Martin Luther King holiday that God can transform the country just like He transformed Ivory from a gang member to a preacher and teacher.
A large group of residents made the annual march from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Center to Alcoa High School to hear Ivory speak.
Ivory said everyone can make a difference. “You don’t think one person can make a difference? The civil rights movement was about ordinary people doing extraordinary work. This isn’t about King, this is about you and you and me. It’s about transformation.”
Ivory said just as God changed him, He can change everyone. “God does heart surgery,” he said. “If God is to make a transformation, it is going to be through you and not around you,” he said.
Ivory said a part of transforming is dreaming big. “If you want to grow up, you’ve got to dream big. If you can commit it to your mind and commit it to your spirit, it must happen. You’ve got to be able to see things as they are and as they could be. The way it can be is what you should visualize,” he said. “We must come to the day when we can love the Klansman and hate the Klan, to love others even when we disagree with them.”
Ivory, who grew up in Memphis, shared how he was the third of 12 children. His mother gave birth to her first child at 12 after she was raped. She then had two other children, including Ivory, by a married man. She had no high school education and no prospects for a job when the state took Ivory and his siblings from her and put them in foster homes.
“I was in five foster homes,” Ivory said. “One was good, one was OK and three more were bad. In that kind of family environment, I went where people showed me love. I went out and sought love in the gangs of Memphis and learned how to steal.”
It was in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was coming to Memphis to speak on behalf of the sanitation workers that Ivory had a change of heart. He and his gang members were going to steal from some cars parked at the Masonic temple. Instead, he ended up seeing King, hearing him speak and it had an impact on him.
Ivory said when King stepped on the stage he had no notes. “It was 57 minutes of extemporaneous speech. That’s why you arm yourself with knowledge. When you get in trouble, you can not go to the library,” he said. “Martin spoke with prophetic power. We as a people will get to the Promised Land. You think he was only talking about black people? He was talking about all of us - you and me. It was at age 15 that I made a realization that I would commit myself to a life of study,” he said.
Ivory said King was trying to convince Americans they had to look long and hard at themselves and see where they were lacking in terms of their attitudes about racial equality. “Martin was saying to America, there are areas where you are not maturing. Stop lying to yourself about yourself,” he said.
Ivory said much progress has been done in the United States in terms of racial justice. “America is not what it ought to be but it ain’t what it used to be either,” he said.
Also part of the celebration were songs by the MLK Mass Community Choir, led by St. John Missionary Baptist Church minister of music Gloria Colquitt. Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration committee chair Sharron Hannum said the choir had numbers organizers hadn’t seen in years. “We’re thinking about doing a CD next year,” she said. “These are community volunteers and churches and some are already volunteering their entire choirs.”
Hannum was pleased with the week’s events. “It’s just been awesome,” she said.
Shirley Carr Clowney showed a display of historical items related to King at Alcoa High School. She had a harness used on the mare that pulled King’s coffin. She also had newspaper clippings focusing on local connections to King. “There are a lot of things people don’t know, and I do have a passion for giving information people they don’t know about,” she said.
Hannum presented the Anthony Dunnings Community Service Award to Mary Scott. Dunnings was the late director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Alcoa. “Anthony Dunnings had such a spirit of love. We felt it would be a disservice if we didn’t recognize his life. You must love people and not be ashamed to serve people,” she said.
Hannum said Scott was deserving of the award. “She will do anything within her power to help others,” Hannum said.
Scott said people should be about serving others. “If we would all serve, we would make this a better community and a better nation,” she said.
The gymnasium was about three-quarters full with spectators during the afternoon service.