Living History – Melva Costen

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7 mins read

Music, Black Presbyterians, and Civil Rights

Video used with permission from the Presbyterian Historical Society, part of the Living History film project.

Melva Costen, wife of former general assembly moderator James Costen, is a retired professor of music and worship. Here she discusses her family’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and the role of music.

Edited Transcript:

Who could know that as soon as we were married, had our first child, and moved to Rocky Mount, NC, we would be thrust immediately into racism?

The year was 1955, not too long ago. Martin King was already active, and when we were in Charlotte, we were in these Civil Rights sit-ins. We were college-level, we would sit in restaurants that would not serve us, but we didn’t walk out, sometimes until the end of the day. And the people at Walgreens – or wherever we would try to eat – would laugh when we left because in the middle of that we would burst into speaking Latin. Most of us were in the choir, and we’d sing a lot of songs in Latin. And we would just use that language and they would come by and look at us and say “They’re not even American! Look at that, ‘Adoramus te Christus’, what is that?”

Jim found himself leading the Civil Rights Movement in that area with ministers who knew Martin personally. We would sneak Martin Luther King into town to lead demonstrations – here’s where we really could have gotten killed! …During that time the African American undertaker would take his fleet of cars to Raleigh assumedly to pick up a body, nobody would pay them any attention, and would sneak Martin Luther King into one of those cars. Then with this huge delegation, looking like a funeral, we would drive into Rocky Mount.

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Who could know that as soon as we were married, had our first child, and moved to Rocky Mountain, NC, we would be thrust immediately into racism?
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I never knew where Martin stayed; all I knew was the importance of music. At that time, for 4 or 5 years, we had a city choir and I was an accompanist for it. This was going to be our first time bringing Martin Luther King into an arena heavily guarded by blacks who had learned to handle guns all of a sudden because police would not get involved, and Jim said to me “All right, I can’t tell you where Martin is, I can’t even tell you when he’s going to arrive, but we’ve got it so that he’s carefully guarded, and we want you to start Inflammatus at the point where we’re walking in.” So I said, “Are we gonna do it in English or Latin?” He said, “Do it in Latin, won’t nobody know what you’re singing about anyway!” I said, “How will I know that Martin is there?” and he said, “Oh I’ll tell the guy to say something about blackberry pie.”

And we had been singing, I guess it’d been an hour, just singing and people gathering, and we were all scared. And about that time a gentleman walked up and said, “Your husband said he wants blackberry pie tonight,” which meant Martin was on the way. So I got word to the director, and we started Inflammatus, so with all the music from this big choir, and this delegation of gentlemen, you could not see that Martin was in the middle of that delegation. We got Martin so that he was on the platform, and he gave one of his speeches and thanked Rocky Mount for being one of the far eastern cities to take seriously the Civil Rights Movement. So at the end of that everybody’s standing; I was crying. All I knew is that when I got to the home of the undertaker, there was Martin! Martin was siting with us, having dinner and teasing me because his wife Coretta was a singer. He said, “Coretta probably wants to hear from you, she’d like to come here and give a concert.” So that was one of the high moments.

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I said, “How will I know that Martin is there?” and he said, “Oh I’ll tell the guy to say something about blackberry pie.”
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There were many more because we even forced two of our children into a school – it was the first integration of an elementary school on the east coast of North Carolina. The test case was Craig Costen v. the City of Rocky Mount to get him into this white school. We had a lawyer who had done so much of this, and he said, “Let me see the young man at least an hour before.” Craig was 6 years old. And my husband looked at him and said, “This is a tough character, so can I get him there about an hour and a half early? The thing we want you to do is tell him not to talk, you do the talking, because if the judge asks him anything, he’ll say ‘I don’t want to do this; I want to go to my black school.’” So Craig won the case that day, and that opened elementary schools in Eastern North Carolina.

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The Living History film project features diverse experiences and stories told firsthand by American Presbyterians. Believing that every one of us shapes history in our everyday lives, we aim to educate and inspire through interviews with Presbyterians, asking: how do we make history together?

Read more articles in this issue Call to Confession: Race, White Privilege and the Church!

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