By Philip E. Jenks
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 88 this week.
It is entirely appropriate that we have engraved his image on postage stamps and carved larger-than-life stone monuments to his memory. But as we celebrate this anniversary, let’s also allow ourselves a moment of regret that in making him a cold granite figure, we have lost contact with the warm, passionate, and often imperfect humanity of the man.
Looking back on his ministry, we marvel at Martin’s moral and rhetorical genius. In every way, he was clearly enriched by his faith in Jesus Christ and gave divine authority to the Civil Rights movement. He gave direction and cohesiveness to the campaign to remove legal impediments to justice and to diminish the racism that demeaned the American dream. His intellect, his courage, his eloquence, and his grit combined to make him one of the great figures of the 20th century.
When I joined the American Baptist Churches staff in Valley Forge, Pa. in 1971, I worked with many people who had known Martin, marched with him, strategized with him, sat on platforms with him, and befriended him.
As I listened to the stories, I quickly noticed everyone had a different view of Martin. Even today, if you talk to some of the old ladies at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, they will happily regale you with unique stories no one else knows. “Let me tell you,” they will say, leaning close to your ear, “Martin’s favorite hymn was, ‘Amazing Grace.’” But don’t write that down. The next old lady will get a far away look in her eye and say, “I remember Martin telling me how much he loved, ‘Be Not Dismayed whate’er Betide, God Will Take Care of You.’” And later, as, you sit down in the old fellowship hall for dinner and ask your hostess if she knew Martin, she’ll reply, “Oh, my yes, and he once confided to me that his favorite hymn was, ‘It is well, It is Well, With My Soul.’”
It makes one wonder how many people historians have interviewed when they write their books. The one fact about Martin than I’m sure of, because empty bottles of it are prominently displayed among his personal effects in the MLK museum, is that he splashed himself with Aramis cologne.
Baptists who knew him well remember he also liked to play pool and, when he was with Baptists willing to conspire with him, he sipped Dewars whiskey on the rocks. He smoked True cigarettes. He had stepped out on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel to have a smoke when he was shot in April 1968.
Reminiscences vary among my American Baptist colleagues. My first boss, Dr. Frank A. Sharp, who was head of American Baptist News Service in the seventies, regarded M.L. as “a difficult celebrity,” in part because it was Frank who negotiated with Martin’s staff to get him to last-minute meetings and hastily scheduled press conferences on time, an almost impossible task. Dr. William Scott, ABC executive minister in Buffalo, met Martin shortly after the successful resolution of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and wrote in his diary, “He is young and inexperienced and in no way prepared for the leadership that is about to be thrust upon him.”
Dr. William T. McKee, the first African American to head a national American Baptist program board, was responsible for supervising me as director of communications for the ABC, and I would spend hours in Bill’s office as he tried to keep me out of political trouble.
Bill, who grew up in Berean Baptist Church in Brooklyn, knew Martin well and often got tears in his eyes when he talked about him.
When Bill served on the national staff of the ABC Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board (MMBB) in New York, he was often in contact with Martin England, a white MMBB staff member in the ABC of the South.
Both McKee and England were concerned that Martin Luther King had no life or health insurance, and they pressed him to sign up for MMBB benefits. The way Bill told it, MLK kept putting it off but finally acceded to Bill’s pleas to sign the application form in 1968, weeks before his death. Bill’s eyes would overflow when he talked about that. “If he hadn’t, his wife and children would have had nothing,” he’d say. I heard the story often.
Actually, the application form signed by King is dated 1963 and seems to have been the result of Martin England’s persistence. But I loved Bill and will leave his recollections alone. As we have seen, MLK memories are often selective.
One topic Bill steered clear of was Martin’s sexual peccadillos, now an accepted part of his biography. “Martin had difficulty with that particular commandment,” wrote his aide Ralph Abernathy in his autobiography. Other members of the ABC staff talked in whispers, sometimes gleefully, about a particular staff woman who was pursued by the civil rights leader and “spent time” with him in hotel rooms. I never heard the woman’s name, but I would often squint suspiciously at maturing female colleagues and wonder about their past.
But church staff understand that God’s call is not a shield against bad behavior, and all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Most staff colleagues who knew Martin respected him and honored his memory.
“I called him Mike,” Bill McKee would say quietly, almost as if no one else was in the room. It was from Bill that I learned that Martin and his father had been named Michael King when they were born, and the elder King changed it to Martin Luther King, in part to satisfy the last request of a dying grandfather. But close friends continued to address the two by their original names. Insiders knew them as Big Mike and Little Mike. This is not a secret, of course, but neither is it widely known.
Martin was assassinated in 1968. My kids, all born after 1976, tended to think of him as a distant historical figure, lost in the archival dust along with Frederick Douglass and Alexander Hamilton. Even before my hair began to thin out and fade to gray, though, the kids suspected I was old enough to have encountered some of these old-time figures. But they figured they had underestimated my age when they asked if I had known Martin Luther King, Jr.
“No,” I replied. “But I knew his father.”
“His father?” None of the kids ever challenged that. They always had trouble figuring out when I was making things up. They still do.
But I did know Daddy King. He remained a loyal American Baptist all his life and attended many ABC biennial meetings when I was on the staff. One time I stood behind him in the J-K line at the registration tables and listened to a young African American woman on the other side of the table ask his name.
“Martin Luther King Senior,” he said, carefully accentuating each syllable.
The young woman giggled.
“No,” she said nervously. “I really need to know your name.”
I was standing behind him, looking at the back of his large gray head, so I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not. But he did make it clear he was not teasing.
“Young lady, I am Martin – Luther – King – Senior. And I am quite sure of it.”
The chastened young woman handed him a registration card, and the great man wandered away.
I was invited by an ABC colleague to have coffee with Daddy King during that meeting, and not long afterwards The American Baptist magazine interviewed him for an anniversary story honoring his son. He sat serenely at his desk and opened letters with a silver knife as he answered questions. His voice was so deep and cavernous that a staff writer and I debated whether it would be disrespectful to compare it to “pebbles falling on a tin roof.” Instead, we reported that his voice was “deep.”
We probably asked him questions he had heard before. We asked if he was bitter following the murder of his son and the loss of other family members, and he quoted the King James Bible: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
I don’t recall the exact year of the interview, but it was after Daddy King had lost a second son, A.D. King, who died in a swimming pool accident in 1969; and after and his beloved wife, Alberta, playing the organ in Ebenezer in 1974, was shot by a deranged man who had planned to shoot her husband.
The elder King’s quiet grace and determined forgiveness were almost super human and a marvel to those who witnessed it.
If you talk with aging members of Ebenezer Baptist Church today, there is one thing on which they all agree: Martin Luther King, Sr., was the model of love and the harbinger of justice that molded his oldest son into the singular civil rights leader he became.
Baptists who attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ebenezer Church in April 1968 have many stories to tell: how President Lyndon Johnson sat frowning and drenched in sweat in the middle of the congregation, or how Ralph Abernathy saw Bobby Kennedy in the rear of the church and went to the microphone to invite him to the front.
But many remember a more private moment, when Daddy King saw his son lying in the coffin for the first time. Daddy King began to weep and reached out to his son – some say it was if he was trying to wake him up – and whispered, “He never hated anybody. He never hated anybody.”
Daddy King worshipped at Salem Baptist Church in Atlanta on November 11, 1984. Later that same afternoon he suffered a heart attack and died at 5:41 p.m.
I don’t know what his last words were, but when I heard he died I thought of his four word eulogy for his eldest son: “He never hated anybody.”
What better way to sum up a life? Probably none of us would be comfortable with the opposite assertion, “He loved everybody.” Who among us is capable of that? Even if we have been spared the violent deaths of loved ones, who among us have not experienced insult, bigotry, unfairness, intolerance, xenophobia, sexism, ageism, or discrimination? There are simply persons who cross our paths who are unlovable. And perhaps the hardest commandment of Jesus is to love our enemies. Chances are we cannot, if we are honest, claim that we love everybody.
But with God’s help, it may be possible to get through the snares and thorns of life without hating anybody. That would be grace indeed.
Martin Luther King – Junior and Senior – never hated anyone. But more than that: each had cultivated the divine spark which is planted in all of us but nurtured by few of us.
Daddy and Martin King had what Jesus bestows: the power to live lives of purpose, a power so vivid that it inspires directionless persons to breathe life into their own divine spark, setting them on the path to faith and endowing that faith with an unwavering moral purpose.
Millions were inspired to a higher moral purpose by the example of Martin Luther King – Junior and Senior, Big Mike and Little Mike – and because they lived, the world is very different than the world into which they were born.
But today’s world is still imperfect, and God is still calling each of us to continue the march that was enhanced so powerfully by Big Mike and Little Mike, and not so long ago.
Like them, we seek to be enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind, praying Christ will strengthen us so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift: especially the gift of humanity, and the grace to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
NOTE: This is an updated version of a sermon I filed a year ago in my blog “The Little Scroll.”