Reverend Richard R. Fernandez
Several years ago a longtime friend, Arthur Waskow, said there were five ways individuals and groups tried to minimize or undercut the leadership and influence of Dr. King:
- You pay him no mind…you pretend he and his group, don’t exist.
- You publicly undercut him, smear him…call him a communist.
- You bomb his home…believing the threat of death will stop him.
- Finally, you kill him. That will settle it…you think.
- If in death he still has influence over people you should promote him as a saint…believing that as a saint no one would think they could follow him.
This morning I want to do two things: First, I want to topple Dr King from sainthood…I want to bring him back to earth where he can be appropriately valued and honored. HONORED? Yes, because I believe those whom we honor we have the possibility of becoming. Second and at the very end of this presentation, I want to share with you three very practical lessons that I have learned from Dr. King.
AT THE BEGINNING…
Michael King Jr. was born in 1927. His parents, Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King, who graduated from Morehouse and Spellman colleges respectively, had three children: Michael, Christine and Alfred Daniel or, AD, as he was commonly referred to. Both of his parents were preachers and his mother was also a school teacher. King’s parents were, as far back as he could remember, civil rights activist.
In the summer of 1934, the King family went to Germany to attend an international Baptist church conference.
While there, Reverend Michael King became very interested in the legacy and writings of the Reformation leader, Martin Luther. So taken was he with Luther’s work that, arriving back in Atlanta, he wasted little time in changing his and his sons name to: Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr.
In many ways young Martin had a very typical childhood, growing up Black in the heavily segregated Jim Crow South. Although early on he was not a terrific student, thanks to his mother, young Martin could read when he entered the first grade. He loved to play games and was fascinated with the game of Monopoly…he thought it a lot of fun to roll the dice and get a railroad or a bank. As far as sports, he played some football and basketball but not enough to suggest he was very good at either. He loved the game of billiard’s but since one can gain weight and smoke while playing billiards it can’t really be considered a sport.
Martin had a very strong relationship with his grandmother who lived with them. He loved to sit on the couch and read the Bible with her. It was actually his relationship with his grandmother that prompted two telling events in young Martin’s life. Martin and his brother loved to play a game that involved sliding down the banister in their home, even though their parents had repeatedly told them such activity was not acceptable. One afternoon, while playing their favorite game AD bumped into his grandmother as she had taken her first step up the stairs; she fell over on her back. Martin, in shocked horror, ran upstairs to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him. He opened up his bedroom window and jumped! Thankfully, he was not injured…neither was his grandmother. Two years later, when he learned his grandmother had died, he did the exact same thing…and again, was not injured.
As he entered high school, he was able to skip the nineth grade. Then, as his senior year approached, Morehouse College, which is where King planned to go to college, initiated an innovative admissions program to make up for large number of Morehouse undergraduates who had left school to join the military. The new program allowed high school men who could pass a special entrance exam to skip their senior year in high school. Martin passed the exam, and skipped his last year of high school.
Martin did not distinguish himself academically at college. He wrote a couple of moderate level letters on civil rights to the editor of the Atlanta newspaper. Several of his buddies use to kid him and call him Tweed…because of his love for Tweed sport coats. He wrote a couple of moderate level letters to the editor of the Atlanta newspaper on civil rights. One writer commented that “He loved the girls.”
On the weekends he often helped his Dad at the church on occasion had the opportunity to preach. This was where Martin first began to think critically about how he’d like to preach. He was clear about one thing: he would not subjugate his congregation…of the future…to the kind of emotional sermons his Dad routinely preached. On the other hand, Martin’s father worried that his sons preaching style might be too intellectual. As for the academic side of King’s time in college, Benjamin Mays, the esteemed President of the school commented that, “He wasn’t a great student but, with a little competition, he might become a better student.”
King was 19 years old as he prepared to leave Morehouse and Atlanta. It is important to realize how race issues had impacted him at every turn in these early and formative years…discussions at home with his parents…watching his parents public witness against racism on a number of occasions…the regular stream of racial insults he endured. There are two specific incidents that stand out:
At one point the family was on an overnight train ride out of Atlanta. When it came time to go to the dining car for dinner Martin was stunned to see the dining car separated into two sections, one for “whites” and the other for “colored.” There was a heavy black floor-to- ceiling cloth separating the two sections. Martin remembered feeling incensed and that a curtain had come down on his life! The family spent the dinner time talking about the necessity to change things.
In his sophomore year in high school, he was returning from a field trip by bus from Macon Georgia to Atlanta with a small group of classmates. The back of the bus, the “colored” section, was full and leading Martin to sit down in the “white” section in a seat which was the closest to the “colored” section. The bus driver stopped the bus, walked back up the aisle and yelled at Martin to move…using the “n” word. Martin didn’t feel much like moving. When the driver threatened to fetch the police Martin’s teacher urged him to move and stand with her. Martin moved, but later conceded that he was seething all the way back to Atlanta.
As he left Atlanta and headed off to Crozer seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania he knew he wanted to be part of changing the country.
King entered Crozer at age 19. The school was about 90% white and 10% people of color. He didn’t know it as he entered Crozer. but his life was about ready to explode. For the first time he was going to study, work and socialize with whites. He was going to be introduced to ethical, political and religious perspectives that claimed his attention and required careful analysis. As he became more grounded intellectually, he began to envision what kind of social change might be possible.
A pivotal part of Martin’s education was his becoming involved with Fellowship House in Philadelphia. Started in 1931 by Quaker Marjorie Penny to bring young people together on an interracial basis…unheard of in the 30’s and 40’s…to talk and sing. In the 1940’s and going forward, participants became more involved in current issues. It was at Fellowship House that King was introduced to the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He was immediately taken by Gandhi as a tenacious strategist and tactician. He also took note of Gandhi’ appeal across religious lines, his appeal to all people of good will.
With a group of Crozer students Martin spent one summer working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut and couldn’t believe the freedom he found in being able to eat in any restaurant and sit anywhere he wished in a theatre or church. All of these experiences opened up his eyes to appreciate whites in ways he had never thought possible when he lived in Atlanta.
And then there was Betty Moitz. Her mother ran the kitchen at Crozer. Young Martin just happened to meet Betty one day as he was talking with her mother. Betty was a student at Moore College of Art (my late wife Happy was President of Moore for a dozen years). Almost immediately they began to “spend time together.” A few years ago Betty, in an interview before she died, said “We were just “smitten and so quickly…it took our breath away.” There was a small problem: Betty Moitz was white! Almost from the beginning, a few of Martin’s African American classmates began to warn him to “drop her”…”You can’t marry her and be a Black Baptist preacher in the south.” He did not tell his parents about Betty for fear of their disapproval neither did he heed the warnings from friends. But after nearly two years of dating, and very near graduation from Crozer, Martin pulled back from the relationship…it must have been, on both sides, painful.
King graduated as the valedictorian of his class. I’d love to know names of the professors who gave him two C’s in public speaking!
BOSTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY
From all reports King enjoyed his five plus years in Boston. He enjoyed his monthly meetings with a group of Black graduate students who called themselves the Dialectical Society; they met monthly and took turns delivering papers on important issues.
Early on, a friend introduced him to Coretta Scott who was a graduate student studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. She was from Alabama. Their first date, over lunch, according to Coretta was “terrific” as they spent most of their time talking about race relations in the United States. Early in their relationship Martin’s parents were not persuaded that Coretta was the “right” woman for their Martin. This might well have come under the common and generalized feeling many parents harbor “nobody’s good enough for my son or daughter.” But Martin’s parents came around and they were married in Marion, Alabama in Coretta’s home in 1953. I would love to have seen the expression on Reverend Martin Luther King’s Sr’s face when, with Coretta, they talked through the specifics of the wedding ceremony and she said, “I don’t want to use that phrase OBEY YOUR HUSBAND!”
When at B.U. he continued to dig into Gandhi’s writing and he also developed a strong relationship with the Dean of the B.U Chapel, Dr. Howard Thurman. Thurman, who was the first Black Dean of a majority white college, was also appreciative and informed by Gandhi’s life and writings. King and Thurman had long discussions about Gandhi and how his social change “way” might be applied in America. As Martin prepared to leave B.U in 1955 he commented, “I got my ideals from Christianity and from Gandhi I learned my operational techniques.”
Time does not permit discussion of Dr. King’s more than 14 years of ministry which was as public as it was history changing. Let me end by sharing three learnings I take away from our time together. I say this in the context of the limited relationship I had with this very special person. We knew each other on a first name basis but we were not close friends.
My first learning took place in Atlanta. In 1958 I was a junior at the University of New Hampshire. In order to complete a paper that I was doing for a government class, on The Aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I hitch hiked to Montgomery, Alabama to interview key people associated with the boycott and then went on to Atlanta to interview Dr. King at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
After waiting briefly in the church office, I was invited by King’s assistant to go down the hall where Dr. King would see me. King was standing outside his small office and as I approached, he extended his hand and said, “good afternoon, Dick.” I don’t know what I expected but I was taken aback by the warmth and simplicity of his greeting.
When we sat down in his office, I was primed to ask him some twenty questions that I’d prepared for our time together. I was very eager and prepared! Before I could begin, he began to ask me questions: What are you studying? What made you interested in our boycott? What did you learn through your recent interviews in Montgomery? What are you planning to do after college? There were other questions. For about twenty minutes he ”interviewed” me!
My first learning: effective leaders are curious and listen to others.
During my interview I referred to “white trash” and a few moments later mentioned “red neck’s”…both pejorative terms frequently used to describe opponents of integration. A few moments after my using these terms, Dr. King, in his very typically quiet voice said, “Dick, you know when WE use words like “white trash” and “red neck” to describe our opponents in our struggle, it is a way of objectifying them. It is very hard to win them to our side if we objectify those with whom WE disagree.” He included himself…he included himself!
My second learning is that today’s opponent on a community or social policy issue is, potentially, tomorrow’s ally and should be treated and approached with that in mind.
My third learning is more difficult to take in than the first two. To be a drum major for justice, in matters large and small, we must nurturer the capacity to be, in Dr. King’s words, “creatively maladjusted.” Dr. King actually has a sermon on this topic.
This is not a very easy task in a culture that supports and rewards conformity at every level. The film “King in the Wilderness” documents, in a riveting way, what happened to King when he refused to conform to the advice of many of his best friends and advisors and came out strongly against the Vietnam War in a speech at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967. The next day he was strongly criticized editorially in every newspaper in the country and in the weeks ahead by the entire Black civil rights leadership.
I hope in what I‘ve said this morning I have removed Dr. King from sainthood to be a place where he can be appropriately honored. On this Martin Luther King weekend, let me end by slightly paraphrasing Maya Angelou…it is my third learning, and may it also be our challenge: “If you’re always trying to conform and be normal and comfortable, you’ll never know how amazing you can be.”
Rev. Fernandez, was the former Director of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, who invited King to address the nation on the issue of Vietnam and how that relates to the struggle against racial discrimination and economic inequality. Doug Hostetter has one of the most amazing personal stories I’ve ever heard of resisting our war IN Vietnam, During the war.