People: John D. Short III

January 19, 2004|JIM LOGAN

HARRODSBURG - John D. Short III knows history. At 51, the pastor of Centennial Baptist Church is a kind of one-man time machine. One minute he's listing the accomplishments of black inventor Granville T. Woods, the next he's walking you through a future of genuine racial and economic equality in Central Kentucky.

For him, time and justice are intertwined. The truth might set you free, but understanding the past is the first step toward getting there.

Short knows history because it he's lived it in the town where his family has been for generations. He was in grade school when Harrodsburg integrated its campuses in the '60s. An ancestor of his wife, Carol Yeast, was the last slave sold in the city.

When he talks about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the state of civil rights in America today, you can feel the lurking closeness of history. And you understand why he was chosen to deliver the keynote address at Danville's celebration of King's life today at the First Baptist Church starting at 12:30. Short will speak around 3.


King believed civil rights was as much about economic equal opportunity as it was about sitting at the front of the bus. It's something Short, growing up black in Harrodsburg, learned early on.

"My grandmothers were domestic workers," Short said. "When I grew up that's pretty much what type of work was around here. You work in someone's house, raise someone else's children, you iron someone else's clothes, cook someone else's food and then you came home and did your own family's. So that's just the way we grew up."

Today, on Martin Luther King Day 2004, his kids - Terry, Yolanda and Nicholas - and his four grandchildren are better off, but Short doesn't think King would be impressed by our progress.

"He would be totally unglued," he said. "I think we've made some strides, as far as the picture of what you physically see, but economically, educationally ... not that large of a leap. At least not in this particular area."

His hometown, he says charitably, is "not real progressive, so to speak." Economic opportunity for blacks in the city is still modest.

"Here in Harrodsburg for instance, we've never had anybody black, that I know of, in our courthouses," Short said.

He's not talking about judges or others in positions of authority.

"Anybody, as far as that matters," he said. "As far as the main street of Harrodsburg, we have almost a .0 (percent) representation. So I know that communities like this, if Dr. King were living he would be hammering this kind of (inequity). Segregation should have already been dissipated, but unfortunately there are remnants of it still living.

"It's not that I'm displeased with Harrodsburg. I'm displeased with the lack of our progress."

He came to the pulpit late

A big man who still moves with the easy grace of an athlete, Short came to the pulpit late. He spent 24 years in the corporate world, and he didn't live much like a preacher, either.

His life took a turn on Oct. 1, 1989.

"God had called me into the ministry," he said, "and I just surrendered after a lot of years of living ... rough, let's say that."

Fourteen days later he gave his first sermon at Centennial. Two days after that, the church's pastor of 20 years, the Rev. L.L. Garr, died. Short has led the congregation since then.

His trials and redemption seem to have given him the ability to see the glass both half full and half empty. Yes, he can sound chilled and angry by the long shadow of Jim Crow, but he can also be profoundly optimistic about the future. He wants everyone, black and white, to know that the past is filled with sacrifice on both sides.

He points to abolitionist John Brown, who died along with two of his sons trying to end slavery.

"Now, you go to our libraries you'll find a section on John Brown about like this," Short says, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. "But in history he's a giant. A giant.

"We don't publicize this guy. I do, because I think that white America needs to know that ... abolitionists way back when were men and women who were part of the underground railroad who gave their life. And if people knew their history they'd know the NAACP was not started by black folk. W.E.B. DuBois was a part of the signing of it, but it was actually some white people that started the NAACP because they wanted to see things done right."

Just as it starts, a conversation with Short ends with history. As he sits in his office with a portrait of King on the wall, he frets that today's young people can't appreciate the civil rights leader because they don't understand the past.

"You won't understand Dr. King if you've never heard of Harriet Tubman," he said, "if you've never heard of Sojourner Truth, if you've never heard of Carter G. Woodson, if you've never heard of Benjamin Banneker, if you've never heard of Ida B. Wells, if you've never heard of Emmett Teal, if you've never heard of the Tuskegee incidents - you can't appreciate a Dr. King because he was a product of all of that.

"And then Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks ignited a spark. And five days later, Dr. King shows up. And then we got the rest of the story."

Of course, the civil rights story hasn't ended. To Short, it continues to play out every day. And the only way to keep it going is to acknowledge the past and look to the future.

"We're celebrating 50 years of Brown vs. Board of Education," he said of the Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in schools. "I've been thinking, '50 years later, how much progress have we made in 50 years? What have we really done?'

"We've got to go forward; we can't go backwards. We've got say, OK, we're gonna move forward, we're not gonna dwell on yesterday's mistakes. We're gonna move into tomorrow's promises. We're not gonna focus on failures. We're gonna focus on solutions."

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