Bringing King's Fight to Inner Cities, Africa
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, Dr. King's final public address. As you probably know, tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. Today, a group of clergy and citizens from across the country will gather at the historic Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee where King delivered that last address. They're going to launch a campaign to help children in inner cities and Africa. Leading the initiative is Bishop Charles Blake, presiding prelate of the Church of God in Christ and pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ. He joins us now to outline the agenda for the first pan-African leadership summit. Bishop Blake, welcome.
Bishop CHARLES BLAKE (Prelate, Church of God in Christ; Pastor, West Angeles Church of God in Christ): Thank you so much. It's a privilege to be here.
MARTIN: How did the idea for this summit come out?
Bishop BLAKE: The idea for the summit really proceeded from the fact that not only is the date April 4th a very significant date, but April 3rd is very significant for us because Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his last speech on April 3rd, and the place where he delivered his speech was at our headquarters' Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. It's called Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, and we were so proud to have been able to host the service on that night at which he spoke. And so we have, from time to time, celebrated the fact that we were the organization that he visited with last before his death.
MARTIN: In your announcement in announcing this summit, you talked about, quote "moving beyond the politics of protest and racial complaint to build an inter-racial and ecumenical movement to rebuild black civil society." Why, then, the focus on black children? Why not poor children who can be of any race?
Bishop BLAKE: We are a predominantly black Church, predominantly black organization. We're predominantly located in the inner city. But, in the United States, and, really, around the world, the descendants of Africa are at the bottom of every statistical measurement. First to die, first to get sick, least educated, poorest, and since we're predominantly an African-American organization, we felt that it was our responsibility to deal with the children of Africa in the United States and around the world as our primary focus for this initiative.
MARTIN: What do you see as the root of these troubles facing the black community?
Bishop BLAKE: Our initiatives are based on what we feel are the root problems that exist within our community. The Bible says that people perish for lack of knowledge, and I think that that is a key element of what is happening and hurting the children of Africa around the world and in the United States. We see hosts of black people being squeezed in the middle, and so we are going to focus, as an organization, on - but mentoring, assisting children in after-school programs and weekend programs, but also with also college entry and SAT exam preparation, and so on.
MARTIN: Bishop, I mentioned it, you're very interested, in the of course at the summit, in working with violent and gang-involved black youth. You're talking about recommitting the churches to sort of mentoring, particularly providing role models to children who are growing up without fathers. Don't your members already do all of these things? What else is it that you are hoping people will do as a result of this coming together?
Bishop BLAKE: Generally speaking, many churches do not have tutorial programs. They don't have after-school mentoring. If there are some that do this, they don't do it under the umbrella of a national coordination and resource provision and so on. And so what I'm talking about is a consistent, organized, structured approach to assisting our young people who, by and large, are being underserved educationally, and who are not really being prepared for life and for productivity. And I think that we can make a difference by assisting with job training, job readiness, and, of course, crime is a problem in our community. And we are encouraging our churches, number one, to consult with and cooperate with law enforcement entities in their community to provide, again, after-school programs that will lessen their predisposition to become involved in counterproductive and criminal activities.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with Bishop Charles Blake, who's leading a summit of civil rights and clergy leaders in Memphis, Tennessee. What is the summit's agenda for Africa?
Bishop BLAKE: I believe that African-Americans must be for Africa. No continent on earth is more troubled than the continent of Africa. There is an AIDS epidemic, and African-Americans must remember that it is their responsibility. And, whatever level of prosperity they've received, they must understand that part of the purpose for that prosperity, as a minister would say, and that's my perspective, was to reach back to those who are less fortunate on the continent of Africa.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that all of the remaining presidential candidates have been invited, but it's also my understanding that none of them has agreed to join you at this point. Are you very disappointed about that?
Bishop BLAKE: Well, no, I'm not disappointed because there is a possibility that all of them may, in truth, attend the conference and be in the city. I understand that they really don't like to let their opponents know exactly what they're going to do and where they're going to be, and they are operating on a very short timeline, but their appearance is not essential to what we're doing.
MARTIN: What is essential? How will you know if your mission has been successful?
Bishop BLAKE: Oh, well, we will know when we record the number of churches that have participated in the program. We will know when they report to us the number of children that they've impacted and the number of children that they feel they're responsible for getting into college. The rising academic grades that the children are receiving after receiving this assistance and receiving this help. You know, anything that we do will make things better than they are now, and so, even when you don't measure and statistically evaluate involvement - as you should. But even when you don't, you know that any kind of effort and participation in the endeavor would improve things.
MARTIN: Bishop, finally, you will be preaching later at the - in the very place and at the very time that Dr. King preached his last address before losing his life. I'd just like to know what reflections you have about that. What that means to you, and what reflections you have about what these last 40 years have meant since Dr. King was lost to us?
Bishop BLAKE: Well, I'm old enough to have heard Dr. Martin Luther King speak. I'm old enough to have gone to Selma and to have participated in one of the demonstrations as a student body president of a graduate school in Atlanta. Dr. King was a phenomenal, outstanding individual and God brought him to the earth at a very critical time in the life of the African-American community and in the life of our nation. We reached a level of unity and a peak of commitment during that period because of identifiable perceivable ills that characterize life within the United States, and because of his leadership and contribution.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other things that took place of a positive nature, that was the feeling that we had accomplished so much that the worst part of the battle was literally over. That we had accomplished the promised land, but, in truth, we had not. We've got to understand that there are problems now that are just as critical, but different, as the problems that we faced at that time and understand that, though our enemies may at that point in time have been outside of us and without us, they may be among us and within us now, and we must fight against the enemies of crime and drug addiction and ignorance that we face now, just as enthusiastically as we fought against problems that we faced in the 1960s.
MARTIN: Bishop Charles Blake is presiding prelate of the Church of God in Christ. That is the largest African-American Pentecostal and fourth largest Protestant denomination in the world. He's leading the Pan-African Leadership Summit today and tomorrow in Memphis, Tennessee, and he joined us from WKNO in Memphis. Bishop Blake, I thank you so much for speaking with us.
Bishop BLAKE: Thank you for having me on.