Looking back

Sydney Addison and her grandmother Pearl Allison, right, attend services at Holman United Methodist Church in L.A. Shortly before his death 40 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. transfixed the church's congregation.   More Photos (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

The 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes as a poignant reminder of the day the civil rights leader stood in the pulpit at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles and preached a Sunday morning sermon about "the meaning of hope."

Less than three weeks before his death on April 4, 1968, King's voice echoed in the packed church on West Adams Boulevard, and some longtime members say they can still recall his penetrating eyes, his calm manner and the silence that enveloped the sanctuary as he spoke.

It was King's last visit to Los Angeles.

"It was a piece of history," said Dorothy DeCayette, who made sure to arrive early that day with her husband and two young daughters.

As Holman prepared to mark the anniversary of King's assassination, the Rev. Henry L. Masters asked if any parishioners remembered the sermon. Not only did church members like DeCayette speak up, some said they had tape-recordings.

At that point in King's life, the 39-year-old orator was crisscrossing the country, giving speech after speech linking the civil rights movement to broader issues: his opposition to the Vietnam War, the end of colonialism and the emergence of a national campaign to bring economic justice to the poor -- goals he predicted might not be achieved in his lifetime.

King's sermon at Holman -- and another later at nearby Second Baptist Church -- was partly designed to raise money for the campaign against poverty.

When longtime parishioners at Holman recall his sermon of hope, they tend not to recall his message as much as the man and his presence among them.

We have made some meaningful strides in the struggle for freedom. But I need not remind you that we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved. Indeed, it is midnight in race relations in our country.

After DeCayette and her family took their seats, she focused on King. "He was enjoying the choir's singing, but his expression was contemplative," she said. "It was as if he was reflecting on something. He just looked different."

Her girls were fascinated by King and, after he was assassinated, she faced their unanswerable question. "It was like you get the news that a relative had died," she said. "And you ask why."

DeCayette tried to explain King's work. Later, her daughters thanked their parents for taking them to church that day. "As they matured and read," she said, "they understood more of the impact he had."

Clouds of despair are floating in so many of our mental skies. . . .

When Bennie Reams showed up for the King service at Holman, an usher would not let her in. The church was full. But Reams seized an opportunity while the usher wasn't looking.

"He raised his arm and I slipped under and hurried down the aisle and sat next to a friend," she recalled. "He didn't know which way I went."

Reams said she had never seen the church so crowded -- it seats 800 -- and so quiet. Then she saw King.

"Having heard his voice on radio and television, I was looking for a tall man," she said. "He wasn't that big at all."

And then he spoke.

"He was an orator, the type of speaker who makes you think," she said.