Never too old to be radical

by John Pixley

There were people who wrote letters saying that the college students who gathered in front of city hall a couple months ago to protest the killings of unarmed black men by police in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City—as well protesting the grand juries opting not to indict the officers in a couple of these cases—were advocating lawlessness and stirring up trouble in Claremont.

There were people who said the same thing about Occupy Claremont a couple years ago, claiming that the people camped out in front of city hall were lazy and shifty, a dangerous presence in Claremont.

I wonder what they would say about all the trouble-makers gathered at the Claremont United Church of Christ two Saturdays ago?

There were a lot of them. I think Claremont United Church of Christ is Claremont’s biggest church as well as its oldest but, even if it isn’t, it’s pretty big and it was full that afternoon. 

Some people there had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, in an effort to get black people the right to vote in the 1960s (as powerfully depicted in the film Selma). People there had worked with Caesar Chavez in the endeavor for farm laborers to have decent working conditions and the right to unionize. Also present were people who have helped Native Americans in their struggle to achieve rights and dignity in this land that was taken from them.

There was also a performance that afternoon in the church, a performance that honored and illustrated all this work and struggle. The performance by the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, which celebrated the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., was held about a week after the celebration of the slain civil rights activist’s birthday.

Yes, there was wonderful and stunning singing by the Los Angeles group founded and directed by Albert McNeil. There were stirring renditions of gospel and gospel-tinged songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Wade in the Water.” Some of the songs, including a couple from a cantata called “Changed My Name” by Linda Twine, were less known but no less breathtaking.

But this wasn’t just a concert by a good choir. Along with the songs, there was powerful narration, telling the story of African Americans, starting in 1863 with slavery and the auction block before fast-forwarding to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Mr. King’s efforts, including the march from Selma, were focused on, and there were excerpts from his letter from the Birmingham jail, his “I have a dream” speech and the “I’ve been to the mountain top” speech given on the night before his assassination.

In addition, the hour-long production included choreography, with the singers acting out scenes featuring Rosa Parks and other bus riders, beatings, shootings and marches, among other scenes. Instead of being awkward and corny, this acting-out was remarkably effective. Indeed, it was a production—conceived, choreographed and directed by Douglas Griffin, with assistance from Nell Walker. It packed quite a wallop.

All of this, not just the moving performance, but also the large audience in the church, was in honor of James and Louilyn Hargett as part of Pilgrim Place’s centennial celebration this year. The afternoon program was a celebration of the activism evident in the work, and the continuing work, of the Hargetts and the other former ministers and church workers who live in this unique, now 100-year-old retirement community in Claremont.

The performance celebrating Mr. King, so close to his birthday, was most appropriate for honoring the Hargetts and Pilgrim Place in its hundredth year. As was noted in a concluding tribute, the Hargetts and the other Pilgrims may well be retired, but they’re not too tired to work for justice.

Yes, the residents of Pilgrim Place put on their delightful fundraising festival every fall—certainly a massive undertaking—and they have nice art shows and teas. But they do so much more and so many more important things.

I don’t know if they were participating in the protest front of city hall late in the fall, but they are well-known for standing on the corner of Arrow Highway and Indian Hill Boulevard in a vigil for peace each Friday afternoon. They were not camping in front of city hall, but they were behind the scenes during Occupy Claremont, providing food, showers and beds to sleep in now and then for the participants.

And, in the last year, they have been involved in the effort to provide overnight shelter for the homeless at the Claremont Quaker meetinghouse. Along with providing this leadership, the Pilgrims have assisted in there being more meals for the homeless in Claremont.

There have been those who say that the peace vigils have been unpatriotic, and there is no doubt some grumbling that the homeless (or more homeless) shouldn’t be attracted to Claremont with free food and shelter. Many would rather see the homeless simply kept out of Claremont.

But there were plenty of people who didn’t like Martin Luther King’s efforts to help African Americans get the right to vote and other civil rights. More significantly, Mr. King did much more than preach non-violence, and even those who admired this work didn’t appreciate it when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and white privilege and spoke up for black garbage men.

Yes, it is nice and it is easy to remember the “I have a dream” speech and non-violence preaching, and it’s nice and easy to remember the Pilgrim Place Festival. But, especially during this Black History Month and during this Pilgrim Place centennial year, there is lots more speaking out and hard work to remember and celebrate.  


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