As I pulled into the church parking lot on Wednesday night, I quickly saw that lots of people besides myself wanted to honor the life of Jack Real.
I parked on the street, then found a seat in the mostly full Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rock Island for a memorial Mass. The size of the crowd said a lot about a man who left the area 30 years ago.
When I knew Real in the early 1980s, he was a Roman Catholic priest, the pastor of the former St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Rock Island. He turned the large rectory into a Catholic Worker House, opening it each night to feed the homeless and hungry.
He also was among those who prayed for peace and weapons reduction at the gates of the Rock Island Arsenal.
Real lived the past 30 years in Colorado. He left the priesthood, married and died in March at the age of 82.
Those who gathered Wednesday, coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remembered Real's impact on the community and his work in social justice, migrant rights and fair housing.
Speakers recalled that in 1967, he helped found the Rock Island County Interracial Council, a group that met monthly for nearly a year to discuss issues of the day. Usually there were no more than five people in attendance.
At the first meeting after King's assassination, that number exploded to 80 or more.
Attendees recognized that neighborhoods needed more help than they were getting and in May, a tiny Project NOW was established, an acronym that stood for Neighborhood Outreach Work Inc.
The next year the organization received federal funds as part of the Economic Opportunity Act and federal recognition as a Community Action Agency. Today the organization serves more than 38,000 individuals and families in three counties, has a staff of 140 employees and annual budget of about $13 million.
As I sat in my pew, I wondered if we have made any progress. Shouldn't an organization like this work itself out of existence?
As I looked around, I recognized some of the old guard of social activists from the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them could doubtless recall the night King was killed, could remember, perhaps, the interruption of television viewing with the awful news from Memphis.
As has been said so often, many wrenching events occurred in 1968. But for me, attending a Catholic grade school taught by religious sisters inspired by teachings of social justice, it also was a time of hope.
Real and others like him carried that hope into action.
ROBERT KENNEDY ON APRIL 4, 1968: As my mind wandered, I recalled reading about the speech Robert Kennedy delivered in Indianapolis the night of the King assassination. His words should never be forgotten.
At the time, Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, and he learned that King had been killed upon his arrival in the city.
According to a reporter on the scene, Kennedy "seemed to shrink back as though struck physically" and put his hands to his face, saying "Oh, God. When is this violence going to stop?"
The Indianapolis chief of police warned Kennedy that the police could not provide adequate protection for the senator if the crowd in the heart of the city's African-American ghetto were to riot. But Kennedy decided to speak to the crowd regardless.
Standing at a podium mounted on a flatbed truck, he spoke for just four minutes and fifty-seven seconds.
He was the first to publicly inform the audience of King's assassination.
Clutching scribbled notes made in his car, Kennedy began simply: "I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight."
Gasps and shrieks met his words.
Once the audience quieted down, Kennedy spoke of the threat of disillusion and divisiveness at King's death and reminded the audience of King's efforts to replace violence with compassion and love.
"In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy's press secretary and speechwriter had drafted notes immediately before the rally for Kennedy's use, but Kennedy refused them, instead using those he had scribbled.
His impassioned remarks are considered by many to be one of the great public addresses of the modern era.
He empathized with the audience by referring to the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, by a white man. The remarks surprised Kennedy aides, who had never heard him speak of his brother's death in public.
Kennedy then delivered one of his most well-remembered remarks: "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
In conclusion, he reiterated his belief that the country needed and wanted unity between blacks and whites and encouraged the country to "dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world."
He finished by asking the audience members to pray for "our country and our people." Rather than exploding in anger at the tragic news of King's death, the crowd dispersed quietly.
Elsewhere, riots erupted in more than 100 U.S. cities including Chicago, New York City, Boston, Detroit, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, killing 35 and injuring more than 2,500. Across the country, approximately 70,000 army and National Guard troops were called out to restore order.