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January 9, 2013

Freedom rider to speak at ceremony honoring MLK

By Terry Oparka
C & G Staff Writer

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ABOVE LEFT: Richard Gleason is shown in his arrest photo at age 24 in 1961 as a minister protesting black segregation on a bus ride through Mississippi. ABOVE RIGHT: Gleason, now 76, will talk about his experience as a Mississippi Freedom Rider and civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., and Chicago at the Troy 2013 MLK–A Celebration of Freedom event Jan. 21.

Although Franklin resident Rev. Richard Gleason, 76, kept a low profile on the bus ride through Mississippi in 1961 at age 24, he was nevertheless arrested for breeching the peace. He and more than 300 others came to be known as the Mississippi Freedom Riders, protesting black segregation.

He said he and other white Freedom Riders initially boarded the bus and sat up front, then changed seats with black Freedom Riders who sat in the back.

For this, he was placed in jail with a large man whose job, Gleason said, was to set him straight.

He is the keynote speaker at the Troy 2013 MLK – A Celebration of Freedom, a tribute to the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Gleason marched in Birmingham, Ala., when Police Commissioner Bull Conner turned fire hoses and dogs on demonstrators in 1963. He walked in Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington that same year, and four years ago, he attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama for his first term, which he described as the “dream of a lifetime.”

He also marched with King in Chicago in 1966, where Gleason worked for 20 years in South Side Christian Center in the community of Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes. Gleason said King described that march as the most violent event he ever participated in.

“There was never a time when Dr. King wasn’t under constant threat of his life,” Gleason said.

Gleason said the 300 marchers in Chicago were under siege from thousands of white people throwing bricks and firecrackers.

Gleason said he is heartened by the progress seen since then, but, “We’re not living in a perfect time now. We have a long ways to go with how people feel toward each other and how we treat each other.”

Gleason said he fears that some people “gloss over what Dr. King stood for and fought for.”

He cited King’s “Beloved Community” speech. “His ultimate goal was not only justice and nonviolence, but his main goal was for people to learn to love each other,” Gleason said.

Retired from active ministry, these days Gleason teaches floral culture at Macomb Community College and volunteers his time for the homeless in Cass Corridor in Detroit. He works with the elderly and disabled, and teaches them therapeutic floral, gardening and other plant-related activities.

“When I was a poor boy growing up in Ohio, there was violence in my home,” Gleason said. “One day, someone said, ‘Richard, look at me. I see in you something great.’

“He told me, ‘If you believe it strong enough in your mind and see it before it happens, it will.’

“When that happened to me, it changed my life. I said to God, ‘If you make me strong enough, I’ll help other people for the rest of my life,’” Gleason said. He will share his experiences and his favorite quotes from King at the Troy event.

Those quotes from King include, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

There is no charge to attend the Troy event, but donations are accepted to defer costs for next year’s program.

“I see some of the same families and members of the business community at the event every year,” said Cindy Stewart, community affairs director for the city of Troy.  The city and the Troy School District have sponsored the event, which includes a student essay contest, for the past 12 years. “It’s a great time for reflection,” Stewart said.

She noted that the student essays are eye-opening. This year’s theme is “Walking in greatness – what would Martin Luther King think of America today?”

“The students are so attuned to what is going on in the world and so aware and astute,” Stewart said. Students will read the winning essays during the program.  

The event kicks off with a Unity Walk with students and community members around Athens High School, led by the Troy High School drumline.

Stephanie Gray Chang, past president of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote-Michigan, will lead the walk and deliver the welcoming invocation. The Troy Athens choirs and MLK Dancers, sponsored by the Troy African American Parent Network, will also perform. A continental breakfast prepared by Sodexo Food Service will follow the ceremony.

“MLK – A Celebration of Freedom” will be held at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 21 at Athens High School, 4333 John R.