April 6, 2018

St. Rita parishioner recalls interactions with late civil rights leader

On the southeast corner of East Washington and Pennsylvania streets in Indianapolis, a memorial honors the life and work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The memorial includes this plaque, among other elements. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

On the southeast corner of East Washington and Pennsylvania streets in Indianapolis, a memorial honors the life and work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The memorial includes this plaque, among other elements. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

It was April 4, 1968. Twenty years old at the time, Charles Guynn and his fiancée Mary were at a skating rink in Indianapolis when suddenly the music stopped.

“The guy who was spinning the records made the announcement,” he recalls: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated.

“I can’t even express how I felt,” Guynn says, starting to choke back tears 50 years later. “What do you say when you lose someone who gave you so much and never expected anything in return?”

Guynn employs the word “you” not in the general sense, but in direct reference to himself—the 70-year-old member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis who knew Rev. King personally. His multiple interactions with the renowned minister and civil rights leader over the course of several months in 1967 and 1968 left a lasting impact on the African-American Catholic.

‘Just another minister’

Through his involvement at St. Rita and his friendship with the parish’s then‑pastor, Father Bernard Strange, Guynn came to know quite a few movers and shakers on the local and national civil rights front in the late 1960s.

One of those activists was Father Strange’s friend, Rev. Dr. Andrew J. Brown, then-pastor of Indianapolis’ St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church. According to Guynn, the church was ground zero for much of the planning of the civil rights movement in the city, the state and even the nation, in the late 1960s.

Father Strange invited Guynn to join him at the meetings. It was there that he met Rev. King, a close friend of Rev. Brown’s.

He recalls joining “both black and white” priests, Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis for “planning meetings in the basement of St. John’s [Baptist Church]. They were planning for civil actions: How to approach the legislature, deciding what the issue was, which legislator to approach on an issue. Would there be a demonstration? Would it be in Indianapolis or down south in Alabama or Mississippi? The whole idea of [Rev.] King was to get away from that area [in the south] to plan, then take the plan back to those areas.”

At the age of 19, Guynn took it all in stride.

“Back then I did not even begin to understand [Rev. King’s] greatness and what he was doing,” he says. “I thought he was just another minister, because I met many ministers who came through St. John’s to visit.

Father Strange and Guynn would “sit down and have dinner with [Rev.] Andrew J. Brown … along with [Rev.] Martin Luther King. … I saw [Rev. King] enough that he developed a nickname for me. He called me Chuckie. I think he knew I hated that. He’s the only one I let call me that.”

‘Violence only leads to violence’

But Guynn admits that he “became captivated with [Rev. King’s] sensitivity toward his fellow man. He was really strong on that, and really strong on rights, that all people deserve their rights. I never saw any kind of prejudice or racism come from him.

“It sounds cliché now, but I knew he was something special. It just oozed from him. He was very real. I have to say he was a holy man. He sacrificed his life, his family, his kids for the good of others.”

Guynn notes that, conversely, he himself was “a bit of a lightning rod” at the time.

“Being a youngster, I tended to be more like Malcolm X—‘You got to do something! You can’t just let people hit you and spit on you!’ ”

Those who fell into the camp promoting violent retaliation were eventually at odds with Rev. King, says Guynn.

“I remember some of the arguments and disagreements that came out of some of those meetings when it became black-on-black, especially those wanting to deal with violence like Malcom X. … [Rev. King] was about truly turning the other cheek. He didn’t react to violence with violence. … I found out from him that violence on violence only leads to violence. Instead, he talked about the idea of forgiveness.”

That’s not to say Guynn never heard Rev. King raise his voice. He recalls one particularly tense meeting in the basement of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church when “one group of ladies came down, and they were upset with his stance [against abortion]. That was a pretty ugly meeting.

“He was very anti-abortion. He saw that as murder. He said it was anti-Christian, anti-human. He called some ministers hypocrites because they were condoning this pro-abortion attitude.”

Guynn also heard Rev. King discuss “freedom of education, [and] the rights not just of African-Americans but also how women were being treated. He believed in equality of women being paid the same as men, and he talked about men’s responsibility to be real men.”

Do your homework, and don’t flunk

As Guynn became a fixture at the monthly or semi-monthly meetings, Rev. Brown called upon him to take on a special responsibility himself. In 1967, he asked the young Catholic to oversee the Indianapolis branch of Operation Breadbasket, an inner-city youth outreach program created by Rev. King.

“It was a weekly informational program dealing with leadership, guidance, religious ethics, being responsible for yourself and what you need to do in the community,” Guynn explains. “It was a lot of education building, not so much ‘abc’ but more on what you need to do to assist the growth of the community.”

Through Operation Breadbasket, Guynn oversaw 2,000 youths and 200 supervising adults in digging, planting and harvesting vegetable gardens in vacant neighborhood lots. The produce was sold at youth-run farmers’ markets.

To help the new, young leader, Rev. King offered “Chuckie” some advice.

“He said, ‘Number one, before you do anything, do your homework,’ ” Guynn recalls. “Next, he said to ‘understand who you’re going before, their strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you deliver your message in an articulate way. Understand where the kids are, so you can … better give them guidance.’ ”

Guynn says Rev. King’s final words of advice were, “You have one chance—don’t flunk!”

That advice, and the example of Rev. King’s peaceful yet powerful activism, made a lifelong impact on Guynn.

“It’s why I was involved in community action,” he says. “Anything dealing with the betterment of the community, I want to be part of it.”

‘What I learned, I carry today’

And so he has been. The highlights of Guynn’s efforts to better the community include serving roughly two decades on the Indiana Black Expo board, 17 years of which he was treasurer; directing the Indianapolis-Marion County Commission on Human Rights for three years upon the appointment of former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut; and instructing Indianapolis Police Department officers on race relations for about eight years, again by the appointment of Mayor Hudnut.

Guynn’s desire to serve also extended to the Church. He has long been a member of the Knights of Peter Claver, even serving as national secretary. In that role, he was part of a team that met with Pope John Paul II to discuss the importance of black Catholic leadership in the United States.

Closer to home, he was a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball coach and served as president of St. Rita’s parish council. He has received a Serra Club Award, the CYO’s Msgr. Albert Busald Service Award and St. John Bosco Award, and the archdiocese’s Spirit of Service award in 2011.

At 70, Guynn still seeks to better the community. For a year and a half, he has served as executive director of Community Outreach for Financial Education (COFFE), Inc., a nonprofit organization that offers personal financial literacy education, as well as sustainability programs for nonprofit and for-profit businesses.

“To this day at COFFE, I make sure I’ve done my homework and tell myself, ‘Don’t flunk,’ ” says Guynn, just as Rev. King advised him 50 years ago. “What I learned [from him], I definitely carry today: don’t be quick to judge, be understanding, and know that each person has different size shoes, and you have to walk in those shoes to understand where they’re coming from.” †


Related: Shared legacies of King, Kennedy show the ‘power of a single person’

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