King's example inspires 2 generations of clergy

January 15, 1995|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Both are Protestant ministers, both are leaders of Baltimore's African-American religious community.

One already had been pastor for 19 years of a large inner-city church -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's congregation from childhood -- when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968.

The other minister was a teen-ager then, hoping to be an astronaut someday.

Across a generational gap, the two -- the Rev. Marion C. Bascom Sr. and the Rev. Arnold W. Howard -- share an intense concern about the moral, cultural and economic health of Baltimore -- its majority black population especially but not exclusively. In some similar and some different ways, they have inherited the legacy, including the unfinished work, of Martin Luther King, whose birthday is today.

"Forty years ago, we were sure that the civil rights movement would change the nation and indeed the world," said Mr. Bascom, who after decades of civil rights battles is about to retire. "Today, we're not too sure in what direction we're headed."

He was interviewed in the venerable, imposing Douglas Memorial Community Church, an 1857 Classical Revival structure at Lafayette and Madison avenues where he has preached since the summer of 1949. In March, when he turns 70, he will become its pastor emeritus.

Recalling Dr. King's stirring appearances in the neighborhood, at the Masonic Temple around the corner on Eutaw Place and at Cornerstone Baptist Church that was then on Bolton Street, Mr. Bascom said, "I'm not sure we would be prepared to hear him as we once did. Too many things have happened."

Mr. Bascom said he tries to be an optimist, but he sounded a note of deep pessimism about the state of the city and nation 27 years after the death of Dr. King.

"We are probably beginning a new cycle," the minister said. "From where I sit in this point of time, I'm not too sure that the attitudes of the politics of our time will not again set up a kind of chasm between the haves and the have-nots. I am not too sure that blacks will not be forced back to the streets.

"And it will not be peaceful -- that sounds awful to say -- because there will not be that voice [Dr. King's] that called out for soul force and nonviolence."

The King legacy, Mr. Bascom said, "came out of a tradition that will forever rise and stare us down. I think he had the unique ability to articulate even for his enemies the decency of his proposition. He stirred our best emotions."

The bulk of Mr. Bascom's work may be behind him, but the leadership of Mr. Howard, 44-year-old pastor of West Baltimore's Enon Baptist Church, is on a fast track.

He will be installed Tuesday evening as president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, charged not only with continuing its activist traditions but with energizing it by attracting younger clergy to the fold.

In the 1960s, when Mr. Bascom headed this mostly black group of clergy, its members and student followers demonstrated repeatedly against racial segregation and were repeatedly arrested.

"I can't see a church ministry without a social conscience," Mr. Howard said last week, standing beneath the mammoth pipe organ of Enon Baptist's lofty sanctuary, a Victorian landmark at Schroeder Street and Edmondson Avenue.

"My sense of my parish is more than just those who come and worship inside the confines of the building," he said. "I believe we have a responsibility for the people who are outside our walls also."

He said Dr. King's influence on him is from the historical record and that it has been interpreted for him by more immediate mentors such as Mr. Bascom, the Rev. Vernon Dobson, the Rev. Douglas Miles, the Rev. Chester Wickwire, the Rev. Sidney Daniels and the Rev. William Calhoun, all former presidents of the interdenominational alliance.

"I think Dr. King in this present age would be doing exactly what he was doing during his own time," Mr. Howard said. "I don't LTC think [a social conscience] was unique to him. He recognized the need to develop a coalition of leaders able to sustain the movement somewhat beyond him.

"It was the need to institutionalize the civil rights movement so that new leaders are constantly arising. That's one of the reasons for my participation in the BUILD organization, Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development. One of its main principles, purposes, is the development of leadership, lay as well as clergy, white as well as black."

From 1992 to 1994, Mr. Howard was co-chairman of BUILD. Goals during that period included increasing wages and benefits for employees of downtown businesses that benefit from public spending. This remains a goal, he said.

Mr. Howard is taking on new responsibilities in addition to the ministerial alliance presidency. He has just been named to the board of the nonprofit corporation that will oversee $100 million in federal empowerment zone grants for Baltimore.

"I'm also going to be playing a much greater role in the NAACP," he said.

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