Waymon Wright broke down Sunday morning as he spoke before the congregation at All Saints' Episcopal Church about his own struggles during the Civil Rights movement and his relationship with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“You start thinking back on different images and different situations you've been through,” he said.
Wright grew up in South Carolina and attended college at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he met King.
“This celebration of a saint in our church is significantly different than the celebration of any of our other saints, because I lived during his time,” said Wright, a layperson, during the special Sunday sermon. “I was very close to this one, knew him, worked with him, admired him, loved him, was his fraternity brother, as well as his Christian brother.”
Wright recalled King as a man who had suffered through the struggles of being black in America at the time and as an outstanding preacher and orator.
King also was “a kind and loving man who lived life with a sense of humor,” Wright said. “Especially when he felt as if the spirits of someone around him needed to be uplifted.”
Wright delivered the message for the first time in his 20 years at All Saints' on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In a twist, it was the deep segregation and discrimination that Wright faced as a child that led him to become a member of the Episcopal Church, he said.
“I'm Episcopalian today because there was not a high school for black children in our county,” Wright said.
Black children in his area attended private schools, with the principle funding coming from the church. The state and the county were obligated to provide certification for the schools and books, he said.
“Our books were always hand-me-downs, with racial and vulgar drawings and writings in most of them,” he said.
The Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education did little to change the social, political and legal establishments around him, he said.
“The powers that be closed the public schools and opened Christian schools to avoid sending their children to school with us,” he said.
Wright's mother was fired as a schoolteacher because his father led an effort to stop the use of county school buses to take white children to private schools while black children still had no transportation.
In time, everyone had buses and a court forced reinstatement of Wright's mother with back pay.
By the time he reached college, Wright was optimistic and hopeful about the Civil Rights movement, so he joined student groups and promoted voter registration and educational opportunities.
He remembers very clearly efforts by his family when he was about 9 years old to promote voting.
“My dad and my uncle would get arrested about once a month, because that was when the voting registration books were opened at the county courthouse,” Wright said. “Every month, my dad, as president of the county NAACP chapter, he would carry as many people as he could persuade to go and try to register by passing the literacy test.”
Those efforts led to weekly visits by hooded Ku Klux Klan members and constant fear of firebombs being lobbed at their home or his father's business, Wright said.
Nevertheless, in college, he embraced the growing non-violent movement for equal rights.
He was arrested numerous times after picketing or sit-ins. In one event, he recalled overwhelming the Fulton County jail.
“There were so many students, must have been 200 or 300 of us,” he said. “We were sitting on the floor, up on tables, everywhere.”
The arrests, while common to the movement, weren't pleasant experiences. People were brought in violently, all the while trying to turn the other cheek, he said.
In cells, he and other activists would pray and sing together.
“That was one way with maintaining our nonviolence,” Wright said. “Rather than getting angry or returning violent actions, we would sing or pray. That is how we dealt with it all.”
Wright said King embodied the biblical messages of praying for those who hurt you and loving your enemies.
He first met King on the night he was initiated into the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, when King was the keynote speaker.
The two continued to run into each other through their advocacy efforts until King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.
A short while after he graduated college, Wright moved to Washington to work for the National Black Caucus and other national black organizations. As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, he was involved in efforts to name a holiday in King's honor and fund the national memorial unveiled on the National Mall in 2011.
Wright, 74, continues to advocate against racism in America. He is a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, which seeks to eradicate racism throughout the diocese.
He encouraged the congregation on Sunday to take time to consider King's legacy and what image they want to hold of him in their minds.
“Once you realize it and feel it, go out in your world and live it,” he said.
Follow Danielle E. Gaines on Twitter: @danielleegaines.