I grew up in Alabama in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. I was a child when the Freedom Riders’ bus was attacked by a hostile mob and burned a few miles from our home near Anniston. The name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was vaguely familiar to me, but only as a name in a news headline or a textbook. I knew little about the man himself. That is, until 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, Dr. Rodney Friery, confirmed for the hostess.
Upon learning of our ministerial affiliation, the hostess allowed us to take in the view from one of the most strategic pulpits in our nation’s history. Then she invited us to follow her to the King Center adjacent to the historic church where 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 the contents. We quickly realized that the hostess was giving us the privilege of examining some of Dr. King’s personal sermon notes, and speeches, and correspondence. This information was being stored temporarily and would soon be processed for the archives.
The notes we scanned 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 notes.
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 us 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.
I will remember Dr. King as a distinguished 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.
I will remember Dr King as an insightful theologian. 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. His study of the prophets served as a catalyst for his own prophetic vision.
I will remember Dr. King as a courageous civil rights advocate. His dream of equality for all people became contagious and continues to inspire a commitment to liberty and justice for all people in our nation and around the world.
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. On April 4, 1968 Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The voice and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped shape a movement that transformed a nation. And we would do well to learn from his prophetic voice, his relentless pursuit of freedom, and his strategy for nonviolent protests and peaceful resistance.
(Dr. Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)