The Civil Rights Movement is replete with examples of a ministerial elite that responded to the call for committed and dedicated trailblazers. These men were ready to challenge the ethical and religious fiber of an America that denied moral and economic justice to a measure of its citizens. The African American Baptist church is a religious institution within the African American community that has produced leaders of national and international reputation. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a product of this denomination that had a history and legacy of giving leadership to the social, political, economic and spiritual development of African Americans.
However, long before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of an America where people would be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,"(1) black Baptist ministers prepared to travel their own Damascus road to freedom. Chronicled extensively is King's legacy of leadership in the "Black Church," the monolithic euphemism used to incorporate all black people who happen to have a religious or spiritual base in the church. While the black church is not one denomination (see article The Convention Movement of the Black Baptist Church on BlackandChristian.com), it is the place where many black men and women developed their leadership skills. The careers of many black men and women began because of the skills they learned in the church. King was no exception.
Professors C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya write, "Talented black men and women developed their leadership skills in the black churches and used them as launching pads for professional careers in the church or elsewhere in black society for education, music and entertainment." (2) King sealed his membership into the black church from his birth into a prominent family of Atlanta Baptist ministers. Not only did the black church serve as King's training ground and launching pad, it produced his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., and maternal grandfather, Rev. A.D. Williams. Both the elder King and Rev. Williams served as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. King's relationship to the Baptist church stretches back even farther. Willis Williams, his great-grandfather, was also a Baptist minister, near Atlanta, during the pre-Civil War years. Evidence indicates that he was a member of the Shiloh Baptist Church. (3)
King's leadership training in the church helped prepare him for his future role of bringing a message of hope and peace to the nation and the world. King wrote about his call to the ministry on his application to Crozer Theological Seminary. "My call to the ministry was quite different from most explanations I've heard," he wrote. "This decision came about in the summer of 1944 when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a responsibility which I could not escape." (4) King was setting the tone for his ministry which would promote a social gospel not unlike that of his spiritual ancestors who had fought to establish independent Baptist churches or those had who organized against slavery. Whether he answered the call to pastor a church or lead a movement, was in all likelihood, never a question. King followed a lineage of Baptist leaders who promoted a social agenda of uplift for African Americans. In other words, King stood on big shoulders.
King's father and grandfather were pioneer black Baptist civil rights activists and both were entrenched in the political structure of the church which gave us many Baptist leaders. His grandfather, Rev. A. D. Williams, arrived in Atlanta, Georgia in 1893, becoming pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in March 1894. Williams' charismatic preaching helped him build a large congregation of poor and working class Atlantans. He became active in Baptist affairs on both the state and national levels. In September 1895, he was one of 2000 clergy that met and organized the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. This organization continues as one of the largest African American religious denominations. Williams was active in the Georgia Equal Rights League and the NAACP. King's grandfather was instrumental in helping to establish the black high school his grandson would later attend. These were the shoulders that King stood on. But King's father was a giant also.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., took the helm of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1931 following Williams' death. An organizer in his own right, the elder King displayed a commitment to civil rights early on. In a 1940 address to fellow Baptists, he challenged them to become active in improving the conditions for African Americans.
Quite often we say the church has no place in politics, forgetting the words of the Lord, 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.'...God hasten the time when every minister will become a registered voter and a part of every movement for the betterment of our people. Again and again has it been said we cannot lead where we do not go, and we cannot teach what we do not know. As ministers a great responsibility rests upon us as leaders. We can not expect our people to register and become citizens until we as leaders set the standard. (5)
Indeed, King stood on the shoulders of the legacy left by his family, but he also stood on the shoulders of countless other pioneering Baptist leaders such as George Liele, Andrew Bryan and David George. And there were many more. In the book, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power, author James Melvin Washington lists Richard DeBaptiste, William P. Newman and Anthony J. Binga as, "more often than not in the forefront of various black Baptist efforts to liberate the slaves and build a black Baptist denomination."(6) These eighteenth century shapers of early Baptist history were shoulders for King to stand on as he worked to build a movement.
King's Baptist biography and the shoulders he stood on, placed him at the forefront of the African American struggle to realize the dream. Let us remember the work of Dr. King and all those who came before him.
Luther King, Jr., I Have A Dream, ed. James M. Washington (San
Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 104.
(2) C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 393.
(3) Clayborne Carson, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., (2 vols.: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), vol. 1, pages 3-4.
(4) Carson, p. 144.
(5) Clayborne Carson, "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African American Social Gospel," African American Christianity: Essays in History, ed. Paul E. Johnson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pages 162-163.
(6) James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Georgia: Mercer Press, 1986), p. 13.