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Six prominent African American ministers remember the life and death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and describe his influence on their lives, their ministries, and society at large:
Rev. James Forbes (Healing of the Nations Foundation): The day I heard the news I was in Richmond, Virginia, on my way to the Medical College of Virginia, where I was doing chaplaincy work. I heard the news, I was in the middle of a bridge called Marshall Street Bridge, I heard it, tears rushed to my eyes. I managed to get across the bridge, turned into the parking lot at the hospital, and I sat there with my hands on the steering wheel, and I said “Martin, you shall not have died in vain.”
Prof. Cheryl Sanders (Howard University Divinity School): I also remember the sadness when King — and the shock — when he was assassinated. And I also remember the outrage. I got my first whiff of tear gas. This was a man who was all about peace and nonviolence, and when he was brutally assassinated there was a brutal response. Everything is up in flames, and — I didn’t know — I couldn’t make sense of it, and I don’t think to this day I can make sense of all of that. But I have very distinct memories of the sadness, of the outrage, but also of the recommitment, the sort of resolve: He has been assassinated but we’re going to keep his legacy alive, and we’re going to keep struggling and fighting for justice and freedom, and we’re going to be concerned about the people who are left behind and left out because of racism or because of discrimination.
Rev. Otis Moss III (Trinity United Church of Christ): For me personally, my parents, one, were married by Dr, King, so literally I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Dr. King marrying my parents. Number two, my parents met in the freedom struggle, and so just hearing the stories growing up, but also developing in a household where the heroes of our tradition and our faith were common names that were called and people who would come through constantly. Never had the opportunity to meet Dr. King, Jr., but his father I remember as a small boy, you know, coming through the house, you know, staying through for dinner, and visiting his home when I was about six and seven. And so I thought it was normal for a minister to be engaged in social justice. I thought that was the norm. I didn’t know that there was another paradigm of ministry until I was much older.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood (Hip Hop Caucus): And I think for me when I really began to understand Dr. King, more than being introduced to Dr. King, was probably in high school. I began to read his speeches, and I didn’t know that Dr. King. It was actually very different. I’d only known of the Dr. King of “I Have a Dream.” And I began to hear his stance on the war in Vietnam and his stance on poverty. That wasn’t the Dr. King that I was introduced to as a child so much, but I really began to appreciate his ministry and how important it was.
Prof. Cheryl Sanders: The “I Have a Dream” speech is arguably the most prominent sound-bite that gives people who otherwise would not know a sense of what black prophetic preaching has been. When King got to that riff, “I have a dream,” he had already established the analysis of the problem of racism and oppression. If you don’t hear the whole speech, it’s like, “Oh, well he’s just dreaming.” And I think it’s really important to recognize that that analysis of the problem of racism and segregation and oppression and the demand that — I mean, this was a protest march on the Mall of the capital of the United States. I mean, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I just have a dream, and it’s a nice dream that everybody can just sort of join in and hold hands.” Well, there is — there was some of that language in there, but the important language is a call to accountability, calling America to account.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Trinity United Church of Christ: The whole nation focuses in after his assassination on the “I Have a Dream” portion of his theology and completely ignores the King who, exactly one year before his assassination, came out against the infamous demonic menage a trois of capitalism, racism, militarism. Those three evils are just as much present, if not more so, than they were April 4, 1967 — 1968. If anything, as I’ve said, they’ve gotten worse.
Rev. James Forbes: My thinking is that we’ve tried to domesticate his vision. We love his beautiful voice and his ringing words of “I Have a Dream.” But I want to give the society credit for knowing when it can no longer just quote those words and then go on with business as usual.
Rev. Otis Moss III: Not just domesticated, but we’ve co-opted the message. Where now Dr. King is utilized to promote McDonald’s and Dr. King is used to promote whatever particular corporation to say that we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, when in actuality these entities were against the message and teachings of Dr. King. So we really have to bring back the radical message of Dr. King and stop seeing him as solely a dreamer and the quote of “I have a dream” or the quote that people love to lift up about “the content of one’s character.” And we’ve really got to deal with the issue that Dr. King, in 1967, talked about the fact that many people of color are living quote unquote in a domestic colony, that people who are poor have been colonized by the majority culture, and the only way to make a shift in power is to really change the issues of poverty and race which intersect in American culture.
Rev. Harry Jackson (Hope Christian Church): The folks who’ve been domesticated are the preachers like myself who don’t have the courage to call people back to biblical accountability. And so when I go into predominantly white settings and preach, I’ve got to be as bold as King was and just speak to truth and love and to say hey, we’ve got to come together and solve these problems. When I’m in black settings I’ve got to be bold enough to say hey guys, there are things you need to do to solve these problems. You can’t talk about these other people as though they’re racist and not acknowledge your own issues of race.
Rev. James Forbes: Dr. King used to talk about churches that were not headlights but taillights. There is not as much difference between the culture and the churches or religious institutions as some of us would like. I think that the churches, the mosques, the synagogues still keep alive a vision of the beloved community. They preach about it, they talk about it. But the power of the church to engage the culture and the society, to bring about policy changes that will allow the realization of that dream, that’s not been too strong lately.
Rev. Otis Moss III: I think that he is the premier prophet of the 20th century that has really shaped the way that we see social justice ministry. Unfortunately, in today’s community and today’s language per se, we have a prosperity gospel that has developed outside of that tradition. So we have competing traditions now, where you have one group that has really developed through this market-driven culture and the gospel, and another group that has developed out of the prophetic tradition of Dr. King, and so both of them are vying for attention per se within the popular culture and also within the African-American community.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright: The church of King’s day confronted a government that had demonic policies and was evil. But 40 years later the church is cooperating with the government, so that from those of us who sit on the inside of church it looks very bad in terms of what has happened to King’s dream, what has happened to King’s message, what has happened not just to the dream about the one who heard quoted on the Washington Mall in 1963, but the beloved community where all persons are counted as persons of worth. So when you start talking about is there unfinished work– God, yes. Everything he was talking about got put on hold, pushed to the side. The national holiday was given in terms of his birthday, and that was the end of it. In terms of picking up the agenda he was preaching and what he was talking about? No.
Rev. James Forbes: It is fascinating that for about 40 years we’ve been waiting for the shining star to replace Dr. King in terms of the sharpness of his vision and the power of his oratory. That person never emerged. When we talk about Dr. King’s words, his ideas, and his dream, people forget where Dr. King got his dream from. Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. Dr. King grew up where he listened to the words of the Hebrew prophets, where he listened to the words of the Gospel. He was impacted by theologians — contemporary. He was impacted by people of other religious traditions. Gandhi was very important to him, Emerson was important to him, Reinhold Niebuhr important to him. We read the same Bible, we hear of the same prophets, we are drinking from the fountain of wisdom from that generation. It is not, therefore, surprising that some of us are coming to the same conclusion. Segregation is out. Racialism is out. Tribalism is dead. Violence will not solve our problems. And economic disparity that simply keeps us always on the edge of either revolution or great despair at epidemic proportions.
Bishop Harry Jackson: I think the idea that America is supposed to be multiracial, multicultural, and that we are supposed to embrace other people’s ethnicity has really gotten into our hearts. So in that way King’s vision and his dream has been wildly successful. But it’s still yet to be realized, in my view.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood: So we’re that generation that was born on the balcony. We are that generation now that is, was born in the’70s and the late ’60s and now in the ’80s and ’90s. We’re a generation of young people working side by side. So we’re not just black or white working separately for sometimes the same issues, but we’re black and white working side by side. We are that dream generation, and we have some of the problems that are carried over from the last generation that we must deal with as this dream generation together.
Prof. Cheryl Sanders: I think he had a wonderful balance of a knowledge of the past, acknowledging the past, but also a vision of what the future would look like. And I think largely in the 40 years we have seen the implementation. A lot of places, a lot of places in the society you can see that the things he dreamed about actually came to pass, and that’s what tells — that’s what makes the difference between a true prophet and a false prophet. What the true prophet speaks comes to pass, and much of what Martin Luther King spoke of has come to pass. It’s just that the full vision has yet to be completed. And that’s work.