by Barry Howard
On Monday January 19, our nation will observe a holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though I grew up in Alabama in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King’s name meant little more to me than a name in a textbook. That is, until 1982.
In 1982 during my senior year at Jacksonville State University, I participated in a field trip to Atlanta with the Sociology Club. We visited several sites of social and cultural significance including the Atlanta Federal Corrections Facility, the Grady Hospital, the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center.
While touring the sanctuary of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, another student and I ventured into the pulpit and stood briefly where Dr. King had stood to preach. The hostess immediately reprimanded us, informing us that in their church tradition, only ministers of the gospel were allowed to “stand behind the sacred desk.”
I relieved her sense of alarm by informing her that I was a “licensed” Baptist minister and that my friend was preparing to be an Episcopal priest, a claim which our faculty sponsor confirmed for the hostess.
Upon learning of our ministerial affiliation, the hostess asked the two of us a few specific questions about our knowledge of Dr. King and then invited us to follow her to the King Center adjacent to the historic church. She led us through the Archives Area, and then through a door that was labeled “Authorized Personnel Only.”
Once inside, we discovered we were in an expansive storage facility with row after row of shelves containing hundreds of boxes. She took a couple of boxes from the shelves, opened them, and allowed us to view at the contents. We quickly realized that the hostess was giving us the privilege of examining some of Dr. King’s personal sermon notes, speeches, and correspondence. This information was being stored in the warehouse prior to being processed for the archives.
We observed notes that were mostly handwritten on hotel stationary, restaurant napkins, used mailing envelopes, and on the backside of “incoming” personal letters. While many respected orators labor intensively over manuscripts, revising multiple drafts in order to arrive at just the right script, it was obvious that Dr. King had a rhetorical gift for rendering a speech extemporaneously from a few scribbled thoughts.
After a half an hour or so, our time was up and we rejoined the others in our group. Only years later have I come to realize the distinct privilege given to me that day in Atlanta. Since that time, I have read most of Dr. King’s published writings as well as many commentaries and editorials about Dr. King’s life.
Dr. King should be remembered as a passionate Baptist minister. Following seminary, he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Later, he succeeded his father, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Dr. King should be remembered as an accomplished scholar. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, he went on to study theology at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He completed a doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University in 1955.
Dr. King should be remembered as a courageous civil rights advocate. His dream was equality for all people and he employed and encouraged non-violent protests to dramatically make his point.
In March of 1964, Dr. King was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.” In December of 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
On January 20, our nation will inaugurate a new President, one whose voice was heard, and whose election made possible, in part, due to the work of Dr. King. The voice and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped shape a movement that is still transforming our nation.
(Dr. Barry Howard serves as senior minister of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)