Dr. King’s death and D.C. riots changed priest’s life and work
April 4, 2018
US & World
For Father Raymond Kemp, with the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago and the riots and fires that raged through the city of Washington, D.C., there came a reckoning and a new understanding of his priesthood and parish ministry.
“It was the beginning of a real, complete coming to grips. I was aware of my whole life changing in front of me,” said Father Kemp, who was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1967.
When Dr. King was shot and killed while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968, Father Kemp was serving in his first assignment as a priest, as an assistant to the pastor at Saints Paul and Augustine Parish in Washington, a parish that had merged in 1961 and 21 years later was renamed as St. Augustine Parish, which was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including some founders who had been emancipated from slavery.
When he learned that Dr. King was dead, “I think the bottom of my stomach went out,” said Father Kemp, a longtime pastor and parish priest in Washington who now serves as the special assistant for community engagement in the office of the president at Georgetown University.
Reflecting on what the civil rights leader represented to him as a young priest, Father Kemp said, “The guy took the word of God that I was studying in seminary and basically put it to work. The whole civil rights movement was built around the scriptural references to building what Jesus called the kingdom of God.”
That night, he said he was devastated to hear of Dr. King’s death and then to witness the effects of the riots that began to rage through the city. Three young men whom they knew from summer programs at St. Augustine told the priests to go back inside the rectory that evening for their safety. “We are going to sit with you tonight… We’re going to protect the property, because people are very upset,” Father Kemp remembers them saying. “They walked us back in the house.”
Listening to the pastor’s police radio, the priests heard about the violence erupting outside. “Young folks started throwing rocks in store windows,” he said. “…Within an hour, there were fires galore on 14th Street,” not far from their parish church at 15th and V streets, N.W. By the middle of the night, things had calmed down, and the priests ventured outside.
“There were cops pretty well everywhere,” Father Kemp remembered. “The kids with us said, ‘You need to go back to bed.’”
Seeing the ruins of burned out buildings in the 14th street corridor, Father Kemp said, “I had never seen anything like it… I had never pictured D.C. burning.” He wondered if that was what the German city of Dresden looked like after it was firebombed in 1945. Returning to his room at the rectory, he could see the reflections of flames lighting up parts of his bedroom ceiling.
The next morning after getting a few hours sleep, Father Kemp joined a neighborhood effort to help people affected by the riots. “We organized churches to be food distribution centers, because a lot of corner stores burned out,” he said.
The priests went out into the streets, and the Oblate Sisters of Providence serving there helped organize the food distribution at the school gymnasium. Father Kemp said the priests’ work included helping elderly people out of burned out apartments and steering hungry people to the gym.
During the rage over Dr. King’s death and the systematic racism experienced by people that erupted into riots, looting and fires set throughout the city, Father Kemp could hear people on 14th Street shouting, “They killed the King! Our King is dead!”
“There was still anger in the air. I saw guys pull a white guy out of a car, flip the car over and set it on fire,” said the priest. “I remember getting tear-gassed five times… We were caught up in the frenzy,” he added, recalling another sad memory, seeing neighborhood kids carrying items they had looted from stores. “It didn’t cool down completely until Palm Sunday” – three days after Dr. King’s death, the priest said.
What Father Kemp witnessed helped him realize “how deep racism was, and how hard it was to bear.”
The priest came to understand how essential it was for parishes to serve their neighborhoods, and to support community efforts aimed at increased educational, housing, employment and recreational opportunities. “I got a vision of church, actively involved in its neighborhood and community,” he said.
Now, 50 years after Dr. King’s murder and the riots that ravaged the nation’s capital, Father Kemp believes, “We’ve still got our hands full. It’s pretty clear racism is alive and well in our country… The need for the Church’s presence in neighborhoods has never been greater.”
The priest praised how people are becoming mobilized to demand greater respect for women in society and the workplace, and on behalf of young undocumented immigrants threatened by the possible ending of the DACA program, and against gun violence. He noted how Dr. King at the time of his death was in the midst of a campaign for poor people and was supporting protesting sanitation workers in Memphis.
“What King did was invite people to a Gospel, a Good News, that we’re all one,” Father Kemp said.
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