When he was a child, Reverend Thomas E. Jordan crossed paths with one of the most revered Americans.
The 76-year-old still recalls being baptized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was about 11 years old in August 1956 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama.
A photograph of Jordan from the moment shows Dr. King holding Jordan’s wrist while speaking to the church, which is today known as Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
“I just remember a very refined young man who had come to us as a new minister, and my family and I always attended Dexter Avenue Church,” Jordan tells PEOPLE. “Dr. King came with this prolific, magnanimous voice that commanded one’s attention. And he was just magnificent from the pulpit. A great orator, a great speaker. He attracted your imagination.”
“He was just, to me, a stupendous personality, someone we had not heard in that fashion before,” Jordan adds.
Jordan is remembering Dr. King today as Montgomery and the country celebrates the famed Baptist minister and activist who became a civil rights icon before his death by assassination in 1968.
Montgomery, of course, played a major part in the Civil Rights Movement, having been the location of a bus boycott in 1955 sparked by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white person. Nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same thing.
The city is also connected to “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, a violent day when peace marchers were attacked by police while walking to Montgomery from Selma.
For this year’s Martin Luther King Day Jr. Day, Montgomery will host a parade and an event on the Alabama capital steps, where Dr. King gave one of his famous speeches (“How Long? Not Long!“) after the Selma march.
Alabama State Senator Kirk Hatcher, a former teacher and community organizer, is a native of Montgomery and sees how city still plays a role in the civil rights issues of today.
“I firmly believe that the continued healing of our nation will have to make its way back through Montgomery, Alabama,” Hatcher, who will be present during the ceremonies, tells PEOPLE. “This city modeled necessary social change for this nation and the world. It is my belief that we will continue to be a model for social change. The great hope is that Dr. King’s notion of a beloved community will one day be realized.”
Jordan, who holds the unique distinction of being both baptized and ordained by Dr. King, still remembers the fear and humiliation that came during the era of segregation.
“Black people, just by nature, knew that we had a place to be, and we weren’t supposed to rise up or raise up for any given reason,” he recalls. “We was supposed to go to a certain section of the city line buses. We knew if we went downtown, we were going to drink from the so-called colored water fountains, instead of the so-called white water fountains.”
He also remembers having to go into the basement of local five-and-dime stores and not being able to change clothes in dressing rooms while shopping.
“We knew that if you paid your dime on the bus, you step on the front of the bus, put the dime in the slot, get off of the bus, go back and sit in the back of the bus,” he added. “We knew that the churches were segregated — white folk had their church, Black folk had their church — and we all worship, supposedly, the same God.”
Jordan said he likely won’t be participating in public celebrations this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but hopes 2022 brings more action to keep Dr. King’s dream alive, including the passage of voting rights acts to ensure discrimination won’t keep citizens from the polls.
Dr. King, naturally, left a lasting impression on Jordan, who says the lessons he learned from him can still apply to today’s generation.
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“He taught me that it doesn’t matter how far one goes in life, just be yourself,” Jordan says. “And to be able to relate to all people of all strata — all levels, economic, political. Whatever way you can reach people, try to reach them, but be yourself.”