To hear Elbert Ransom Jr. speak about Martin Luther King is to be transported to another time and place — caught in the melodic syllables of a masterful Baptist preacher whose intonations strike at the heart of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Not only does Ransom have the cadence of a civil-rights leader; he’s got the resume to match. And he knew King personally.
“He was a giant who walked in our time,” said Ransom during a keynote address at the city’s commemorative program honoring Martin Luther King. “It was because of my association with him that I became an ordained minister.”
A native of Jackson, Miss., Ransom grew up during the era of segregation in New Orleans. His parents owned a successful dry-cleaning business, but Ransom wanted to spread his own wings. So he chose a college location that was far away from the family business — Alabama State College for Negroes in Montgomery, Ala. The decision to board the train from New Orleans to Montgomery would be one of the most important of his life, and it would place him on a collision course with history.
“My mother packed me a wonderful lunch that day because I was not allowed to eat in the whites-only dining car,” said Ransom. “But that’s OK because my lunch was probably much better.”
From 1954 to 1956, he was a college student in Montgomery during the momentous days of the famous bus boycott. He participated in the protest and passed out leaflets supporting the cause of the boycotters. Eventually he joined Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he crossed paths with Martin Luther King Jr. — a young Baptist preacher who became a spokesman for the black community during the boycott.
“Montgomery in those days was two cities — one for white people and one for black people,” said Ransom. “But right there in the cradle of the confederacy is where the civil-rights movement was born.”
RANSOM’S SPEECH was a blend of personal history, tribute to King and inspirational testimony. His booming baritone voice was frequently too much for the sound system, which crackled under the weight of its volume — a speaking style honed during his years as pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church. Yet it was his mastery of Alexandria’s public life, as an assistant city manager under Vola Lawson and Phil Sunderland, that formed the core of his speech.
“I call Alexandria my Mayberry,” said Ransom. “I can walk down King Street during the lunch hour and wave to people I know on both sides of the street.”
Ransom challenged Alexandrians to forge ahead with King’s vision, which he said had yet to come to fruition. He said that taking a nonviolent approach and appealing to the “godliness of your enemies” was a strategy for moral success. Ultimately, Ransom said, fulfilling the dream should be a daily calling.
“We have been created to be in relationships with each other,” said Ransom. “I will continue the fight!”
AFTER THE SPEECH, audience members held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” — a gospel song that became the theme of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. City leaders mingled with audience members and mulled the importance of King and his legacy. Mayor Bill Euille said that King’s holiday should be a time to contemplate the legacy of segregation and the struggle to overcome it.
“Black America needed Martin Luther King,” said Euille. “But, above all, America needed him.”
City Manager Jim Hartmann said that although King is a man of the past, his legacy remains an important part of America’s present. He said that the holiday offered a great time for people to reflect on their own lives and ask themselves if they are committed to the dream that, as King once said, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
“It’s really what we are about as a city family,” said Hartmann.