Coretta Scott King was my teacher. In 1980, when I was a student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Mrs. King and Dr. Noel Erksine co-taught a course on the Theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and it turned out to be a class that continues to influence my life.
The class was rigorous academically. We read all of Dr.King’s published work, Mrs. King’s autobiography, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. , and David Lewis’ biography, King. In addition, we were required to write a major term paper. (I earned a “C” on my paper which attempted to describe the influence of Gandhi on Dr. King.) Mrs. King was able to schedule presentations by some notable associates of her husband. Particularly, I remember presentations by Dr. Harold DeWolf (Dr. King’s dissertation professor from Boston University), and The Rev. Ralph Abernathy. We were disappointed when Ambassador Andrew Young cancelled his presentation to a combined class from the law school and the theology school due to an African president’s funeral that President Carter asked him to attend. Mrs. King was gracious, elegant, and personable as she offered us her personal perspective and memories of her life as a civil rights leader. We were well-instructed in the principles of non-violent direct action; and we were repeatedly told that non-violent direct action is NOT the same thing as pacifism. (I was dismayed to see a section in Wikipedia describing Mrs. King as a pacifist when I looked it up just now.) The entire class was remarkable, and I will not forget our last class session when we stood in a circle, crossed our arms, held hands, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Mrs. King was a trained soprano (The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston) and her beautiful voice rang out clearly above the entire class as we sang.
In my work as a United Methodist pastor, and as a public school teacher, I have continued to look for ways to work for justice, peace, and racial equality. In the church, I served on the Florida Conference Commission on Religion and Race, the conference Ethnic Local Church Committee, and the work area on Church and Society. Each of these groups gave me an avenue to express my quest for justice, equality, and peace. Through the years I made conscious attempts to step over racial boundaries in whatever community I happened to be living. I became acquainted with the neighboring pastors of African American churches, and I attended worship in these churches when it was possible. I routinely attended the local observance of Dr. King’s birthday even when I was the only white face. On one occasion I was even asked to give a spontaneous speech at such a community gathering. Eventually, I was appointed to be the pastor of a small African American congregation as part of a two point charge in Ft. Myers, Florida. I served that congregation for three years, and I felt honored to get to know that community on an intimate level as only a pastor is privileged to do. I was pleased to find occasions to connect the congregations. When the African American Church held a barbecue, some of my white congregation would attend, and when the white congregation held a rummage sale, the favor was reciprocated. The women from the two churches would carpool together to district UMW meetings, and several times we were able to hold Bible studies together.
It wasn’t always easy, though. I paid a price for my quiet activism. In one congregation I served, some of the leaders were disturbed by several of my “unseemly” actions. I scandalized some in the congregation by officiating at the large wedding of an African American couple in “our” sanctuary. And a number of folks stayed home in protest on the night I invited the AME choir to sing at our annual revival meeting. Even though I seldom preached on the topic of racial justice, I stirred up the issue through my actions. I didn’t stay long in that church; and I was grateful for the guaranteed appointment that The United Methodist Church offers ordained elders in full connection.
As a teacher, I have also found ways to honor Dr. and Mrs. King. It has actually been fairly easy to incorporate something about Dr. King into each class I taught. As a reading teacher, I taught two groups of Kreyol-speaking Haitian kids how to sing “We Shall Overcome.” We discussed the importance of the song, and I introduced Dr. King to them as an important figure in American history. As an eleventh grade English teacher, I expanded our study of King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. We searched the letter for examples of rhetorical devices as our curriculum required; but we also discussed the historical context of the letter. I brought in my signed copy of Dr. King’s book The Trumpet of Conscience, and showed my students Mrs. King’s personalized inscription. To my dismay, I am now discovering that my students no longer know the history. Today most students know rather vaguely that Martin Luther King, Jr. once gave a great speech, and that we commemorate his birthday with a national holiday; but beyond that even African American students know little.
I was excited about a month ago when I learned that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three African women who used the strategy of non-violent direct action to bring peace to their countries. Dr. King’s legacy continues to live today, and his method for addressing injustice is still useful. These ideas still need to be passed on to future generations so that injustice may be dealt with in a productive. effective manner. So I would like to challenge YOU to honor Dr. King this year as we celebrate his life. And I’d like to offer you the space in the comments on this blog to tell others how you plan to recognize his accomplishments.