Martin Luther King and Morningside Heights
by Elliott Wright
New York, NY, January 18, 2010--Morningside Heights is a storied neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan, New York City.
High above the Hudson River, adjacent to Harlem, it is the birthplace of 1950s "beat literature," a fortress of the 1960s anti-Vietnam war movement, the residence at strategic points of theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
The imprint of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is also bold in Morningside Heights.
The tallest tower in view from Columbia University is that of The Riverside Church, where in 1967 King embraced the protests against the policy of the United States in Vietnam, giving new impetus to peace efforts.
Across the street stands Union Theological Seminary, where students and professors, including ethicist Dr. John C. Bennett, were staunch supporters of civil rights and strong opponents of militarism.
Not far way, the Jewish Theological Seminary was home to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the eminent scholar who marched with King at Selma in 1965.
At 475 Riverside Drive rises The Interchurch Center, headquarters at that time to most of the mainline American Protestant churches active in civil rights and peace, and notably the base of the National Council of Churches (NCC).
The NCC and its Commission on Religion and Race played a major part in pushing for congressional and presidential endorsement of federal civil rights legislation. It was a significant organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, which was a major motivation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. King delivered the powerful "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 event in Washington.
The Interchurch Center is bearing testimony to King's legacy during the observance of its own 50th anniversary. King's 81st birthday, coming almost 42 years after his assassination, is being celebrated with a collection of civil rights photographs, many of him and his work, and many never seen publicly before.
"Giving Voice: Unearthing the Ken Thompson Collection" is sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries, the mission agency of The United Methodist Church, a tenant of The Interchurch Center since the ecumenical facility opened. The Thompson photography collection of 30,000 images, including thousands from the civil rights struggle, was purchased by Global Ministries upon the untimely death of the photographer in 1973 at age 30.
Thompson, who was raised in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, was a high school senior when he won a photography contest that brought him to the attention of the editor of Youth, a magazine of the United Church of Christ. This link put him in touch with the ecumenical youth movement, which was alive with civil rights sentiments.
A contact with Betty Thompson, then press officer of the World Council of Churches, would bring him into the sphere of Global Ministries when Ms. Thompson (no relationship) came to the United Methodist mission agency.
Ken Thompson became the official photographer of the NCC's Commission on Religion and Race and, as such, took dramatic, black-and-white pictures of the March on Washington, King's Selma-to-Montgomery March, the Freedom Schools of the Mississippi Delta, and urban civil rights encounters in New York City and Chicago.
He captured on film not only confrontation but also the steady faith, the confidence, the unquenchable dreams, and the forgiveness of those too long denied basic human respect and rights.
"The General Board of Global Ministries is deeply pleased to be able to present the too-long neglected collection of Ken Thompson to new generations," said the Rev. Christopher Heckert, director of communications for the agency and the curator of the exhibit.
"'Giving Voice' is a reminder of the power of art, including photography, to plumb the depths and heights of human experience and aspirations. We see this exhibit as a tribute to Dr. King and a recognition of the many contributions that Morningside Heights made to civil rights."
A slide show presentation of the exhibit at The Interchurch Center and other Ken Thompson information are available on the Global Ministries' website at gbgm-umc.org/kenthompson.
Elliott Wright is an author and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Jan 17, 2010