January 15, 2021
What Would Martin Luther King, Jr. Say?
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., c.1964
As we experience recent events, one cannot help but wonder what Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have been ninety-two today, would say if he were alive. He had seen and experienced much racial and social strife, hatred and division during his life. An assassin’s bullet indeed killed him, but he had dreamed of a new America, of one that could have elected the nation’s first African American president. But could he have envisioned that after the progress of the twentieth century’s Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement, the insurrection that ensued last week? This act of terrorism occurred less than a mile from where he so poetically spoke fifty-seven years ago during the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom.
King under attack during a peaceful against housing discrimination in an all-white neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois, August 5, 1966
To be sure, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by his very personage, embodied the peace and civility our nation is in so desperate need of today. Reverend Marcus Garvey Wood told of an incident at Crozer Theological Seminary, where he and King were both students in the late 1940s and early 1950s: “Hall [another student] was from Georgia and he was white… a red faced fellow. I was nine years older than King and… one night, King went into town and when he came back, all of… [Hall’s] bed clothes were taken and put somewhere in the building… That's what they call 'stacking rooms’ …they just carried them down in the basement… [Hall] went to King's room with a pistol… And when I opened the door, I saw Hall facing King… he had the gun in King's chest and said, ‘I'm going to kill you.’ And I got between them and being older then both of them, I sort of mellowed them down… it was reported to the Dean who called the student body together and said there will be no more stacking of rooms because one of our students was about to be killed.”[1]  
Naomi “Nene” King and Alfred “A.D.” King on their wedding day, standing with King, Jr. (far right), 1950
Herbert U. Fielding (1923 - 2015), who was the first black representative elected to the South Carolina legislature since Reconstruction, remembered: “One time we were in a conference with Martin Luther at, I think it was Memphis [Tennessee]… and Martin Luther was up on the stage and speaking, and this white guy… was sitting right next to me, and all of the sudden, he jumped up and ran up the steps… had on brass knuckles, and started beating on Martin Luther… and those guards grabbed him and they were fitting to tear him up… Martin… wouldn't let them. He took the darn brass knuckles off the guy.”[2] Naomi King, the wife of Reverend Dr. King’s brother, Alfred Daniel, spoke of his perseverance: “I can remember in 1955 when I went… to see him and Coretta [Coretta Scott King]… he said, ‘Hi Nene.’ I said, ‘Hey, ML…’ [he] put his hands up on the mantel and he said, ‘You know what Nene?’ …and he put his hands up to his throat where his tie was and he said… ‘They tried to choke me to death with my tie.’ … he just kept… fingering with his tie and he said, ‘But you know what… the more they do to me, the more I'm gonna love them 'cause that's what I'm supposed to do. God said that I'm supposed [to].’”[3]
King with Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, undated
It was this King who would be influenced by the legendary Morehouse president Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, as described by his fellow classmate Charles Willie, former Dean of the Harvard School of Education: He [Martin Luther King, Jr.] was fifteen… his major in college was sociology. He was not at all clear when he entered school that he wanted to go into the ministry. It was not until his last year or his last two years that he finally decided… that was his calling… And Martin… was one of the kinds of persons who after Dr. [Benjamin E.] Mays [President of Morehouse] spoke at the Tuesday morning chapel… [he] would follow him all the way back to his office arguing with him about some kind of matter… here was this real interest in being a good scholar and debating.”[4]
King and The Honorable John Lewis, c.mid-1960s
King would go on to mentor others. U.S. Congressman John Lewis (1940 - 2020), who we lost last year, spoke of corresponding with King while attending American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1950s: “Martin Luther King Jr. wrote me… somehow he discovered from a young minister in Nashville that I was in Nashville at American Baptist [Theological Seminary, Nashville, Tennessee]. And suggested if I was home from spring break to come and see him. So in March of 1958… I'm eighteen years old. On a Saturday morning, my father [Eddie Lewis] drove me to the Greyhound Bus station. I boarded a bus, traveled the fifty miles from Troy [Alabama] to Montgomery [Alabama]. I arrive in Montgomery. I'd never seen a lawyer before, black or white. A young black lawyer by the name of Fred Gray… who was the lawyer for Rosa Parks and Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.]… met me and drove me to the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery pastored by Reverend Ralph Abernathy. He ushered me into the office of the church, and I walked into the pastor's study. I saw Dr. King standing behind a desk. I was so scared. I was so frightened. I didn't know what I was gonna say to Martin Luther King, Jr. 'Cause this man had emerged for me as one bigger than life. He was my hero. And… when I walked through the door, he said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy [Alabama]? Are you John Lewis?’ I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.’ I gave him my whole name. I didn't want there to be any mistake that I was the right person. That was the beginning of my relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. And really my beginning involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.”[5]
King speaking with students on a visit to Columbia University, October 1961
Around this same time, former Howard University president H. Patrick Swygert, tells of being a student there when King visited: “I recall one Sunday Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at chapel and President [James M.] Nabrit had a dinner reception for him afterwards. And before the dinner began, the president lined up… all of my buddies and I who were gonna be waiting tables… And I recall the president doing down the line… he said, now, ‘Dr. King is our guest this afternoon… I don't want any foolishness out of you people. Just serve the food, don't say anything. And get back in the kitchen…’ Well, Dr. King came in, and… said, ‘I want to meet the young men who are waiting the tables…’ So we all lined up, and Dr. King walked down… and the president was right on his shoulder… glowering at us… he got to me and he said, ‘Now, where are you from?’ And I said, ‘Philadelphia [Pennsylvania].’ He said… ‘Do you know Reverend Gray?’ [Reverend William Gray, former U.S. Congressman William H. Gray III's father]… I said, ‘Oh, why certainly, Bright Hope Baptist Church.’ So President Nabrit said, ‘You don't know Reverend Gray…’ I said, ‘yes, sir, I do.’ So, Dr. King was intrigued… said, ‘I went to Chester Crozier… [Crozier Theological Seminary] up there.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, sir, I know that…’ So Dr. King said, ‘Now, now, what's your major? The only thing I could say was, ‘Graduation.’ So (laughter) President Nabrit said, ‘That's enough… let's keep going.”[6]
King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, October 14, 1964
Reverend Albert Richard Sampson, who was ordained by King, spoke of his selflessness: “When he got the money from the Nobel Peace Prize, he donated it back to the organization [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] because it was never about money for him… he would go to speak at colleges and then come back. And Dora McDonald would have a stamp with his signature… and she would stamp the checks and the money would go back into SCLC … I asked him one day, ‘Dr. King, aren't you lonely? I mean you're out here on a lot of these issues all by yourself.’ And he took a penny out and said that leadership is like a penny. On one side is the right to lead, and the other side is the responsibility of being alone. But you're not alone because you have God. But you are alone because sometimes the people don't understand.”[7]
Yolanda King with her father, 1962
Today, we miss the kind of leader that King represented. Kind, compassionate, caring, committed, and civil, even in the face of adversity. That was not what was on display this past week in our nation’s Capitol. Nor did we see thoughtful messaging like the 275,000 people who peacefully gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963 heard, and, with millions watching on TV, held on to every word; words that are as true now as they were then: “We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now… Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the momentSo even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”[8]
King before a crowd of 25,000, Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965
On this important day, as we transition into the New Year and new administration, we should reflect on the many lessons to be learned from Reverend Dr. King, who would undoubtedly have wisdom to share regarding the recent violence and ongoing division. Civil rights activist and religious leader Reverend Willie T. Barrow (1924 - 2015), a field organizer for the SCLC, reflected on him as a person, mentioning something many of today’s leaders might learn from: “He knew his purpose… And he was very secure in who he was… He was the most humble man I've ever seen.”[9]
[1] Reverend Marcus Garvey Wood (The HistoryMakers A2005.005), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, January 10, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 6, Marcus Garvey Wood remembers fellow seminarian, Martin Luther King, Jr.
[2] Herbert U. Fielding (The HistoryMakers A2007.042), interviewed by Denise Gines, February 2, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Herbert U. Fielding describes his interactions with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
[3] Naomi King (The HistoryMakers A2010.071), interviewed by Denise Gines, July 14, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 7, Naomi King recalls Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s commitment to nonviolence.
[4] Charles Willie (The HistoryMakers A2001.079), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 13, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Charles Willie describes Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Morehouse College student.
[5] The Honorable John Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2001.039), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 25, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. influences John Lewis's consciousness.
[6] H. Patrick Swygert (The HistoryMakers A2003.115), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 2, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, H. Patrick Swygert remembers meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
[7] Reverend Albert Richard Sampson (The HistoryMakers A2002.159), interviewed by Adele Hodge, August 19, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Al Sampson expresses his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
[8] Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream" (speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963).
[9] Reverend Willie T. Barrow (The HistoryMakers A1999.001), interviewed by Adele Hodge, August 19, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Willie Barrow shares her recollections of Martin Luther King.
Favorite Quote

"Better To Have It And Not Need It Than To Need It And Not Have It."

Bernice Albertine King
Minister & Civic Leader
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