Today, Martin Luther King Jr. is most remembered as an activist and the face of the American civil rights movement. But King's civil rights activism began at the pulpit, as a minister.
It was his background as a faith leader that drove his life's work of championing radical love, speaking truth to power and advocating for a transformed society. In honor of the 93rd anniversary of King's birth, Radio Boston takes a deep look into his calling as a pastor — and how it helped mold him into one of the most iconic civil rights leaders of all time.
To discuss King's extraordinary legacy of faith, hope and justice, Radio Boston's Tiziana Dearing spoke with three Boston-area pastors: the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury; the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, founding pastor of New Roots AME Church in Dorchester; and the Rev. Dr. Gregory G. Groover, Sr., pastor of the historic Charles Street AME Church in Roxbury.
"What I think we have to be very careful of in our present time as we think about King is not to blunt his powerful radical voice, because King did speak truth to power," Bodrick says. "He just knew that we can deal with conflicts in a better way, and that better way is always framing love as the apparatus that holds our conversations together, holds our communities together, holds our country together."
Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
On how King's final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple in Memphis the day before his assassination, resonates today:
White-Hammond: "This has come at the point where King has expanded to a poor people's campaign that is attempting to unite folks across race across the country. He's bringing in white folks in Appalachia who've been struggling with poverty for generations. He's making commentary about the Vietnam War that people are saying, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You can talk about hoses and you can talk about dogs, but don't talk about the military industrial complex,' right?
"It is both reflective of the fact that his vision had grown — his time in the movement, what he was up against, expanded his vision. And I think there was the reality that everybody wasn't ready to go there with him. And I know that had to be hard. Because he had given everything ... and not everybody was with him. But I think, in this moment in this speech, what we hear is a Martin King who's able to see, at least in that time, beyond the reality that he was experiencing in real time, in a real moment in Memphis, Tennessee, in a strike for folks trying to get equal pay for sanitation workers. And he recognizes that he is part of a long struggle that did not begin with him and will not end with him.
"We hear the hope in his voice, the way in which he's able to see himself planted into that trajectory even ... [when] the real, day-to-day reality was tough. From my perspective, as an organizer ... I work on climate, the likelihood that we are all gonna be overrun by the ocean at times feels much more likely than the idea that we would rise up and choose to make choices now that leaves a livable planet for future generations. And yet, that radical love always inclines to a kind of hope that is inexplicable. And that's what we hear in Dr. King. The belief that even if he does not get there, there is a little girl dreaming right now. There's a little boy preparing, there's a family praying and hoping and choosing to push back, and that even if he is no longer present, you cannot quench the legacy of justice, that that arc of the universe will keep building beyond his lifetime."
"Many people hold up a system because it's kind of sort of mostly working for them, and they don't necessarily believe anything better is possible. The mentality is, 'Let me get mine in the system as it is.' [King's] notion is, 'This is not the best we can do. We can do better. And I invite all of you to join me in the better system we could be creating.' "The Rev. Mariama White-Hammond
On whether there's a distinction between King as a pastor and as a civil rights leader:
Bodrick: "Dr. King is the child of a pastor. His dad, Martin Luther King Sr. — known affectionately as Daddy King — was the pastor of the great Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. And Dr. King grew up being shaped and molded by a great pastoral legacy. He's not a first-generation or second-generation or third-generation pastor, and so he understood the necessary calling towards serving, but also giving himself over — not only to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but to the work that is necessary to serve humanity. I think he talked about that even as he was wrestling with his calling to ministry ... it was really a calling to serve humanity. And I think Dr. King really shaped and molded the ways in which he engaged not only community, but people, by knowing what it took to serve people in his community of faith.
"He began his work as a child, I believe. I think it shaped and molded him. And then when he went on to Crozer Theological Seminary, then he ends up here in Boston at the behest of his work towards engaging his theological studies at [Boston University]. He ends up with the Rev. William Hunter Hester, because his dad knew Reverend Hester, and he ended up working at [Twelfth Baptist Church] and ended up preaching and serving. And I think that began the foundations for him to think about, critically, what does it mean to pastor beyond the walls of the church? What does it mean to bring the gospel outside of the four walls of the church? And I think that fared him well, because after he left Boston, he went to pastor his first church. And that is important because I think it was his pastoral work that ... forced him into the movement work of fighting for the rights of Black folks in the South. We can't separate the two."
On the juxtaposition between the radical love and righteous anger King expressed:
White-Hammond: "King's emphasis on love both at times makes him misunderstood within the movement — particularly in the latter stages of the movement, as Black Power is becoming a sort of more resonant thought for many young people. But his emphasis is not on a sort of sugary, feel-good love ... he has a really radical perspective of love. And a lot of that, I think, is built on the thinking of Howard Thurman, who was at Boston University when Dr. King was there ... it's Thurman that really connects King with the ideas of Gandhi and the ways that they can be lived out in revolutionary practice. And this idea of Jesus as one who loves those — as Thurman puts it — 'whose backs are against the wall,' that Jesus' practice of love is to say, 'I cannot let you treat my people this way.' That call is both in service to folks who are struggling, but it also is an appeal to the soul of those who would oppress, to walk away from that.
"The ability to hold that tension is not an easy one. But King brings this notion of love and lives this notion of love in the work that he does. And there were folks who had a hard time. There are folks who had a really hard time with the idea [of] holding any space of love for people who are willing to sic dogs on you, or willing to spray you with hoses. King pushes the notion that the love that is worth fighting for is not always the love that is easy to have. And it's not that he's saying, 'Let's just forgive people and allow them to keep doing what they're doing.' He's clearly pushing for change.
"He's organizing, he's talking about legislative work and confronting systems and ... holding people accountable. But the idea that you do it from a place of love — both for those who are oppressed, and for the sickness in the soul of those who choose to be oppressors — it's a pretty powerful notion."
Groover: "Dr. King's radical and righteous love, which I also think Coretta Scott King bore, was a love that talked about tearing down ... all divisions, human constructs that we create that separate us ... and they had that alternative vision — a vision that was separate and distinct from that of the prevailing world. A vision where there was not even love shown to the least of these, but a vision where there was no 'least of these,' that there was no separation, and a world where there would no longer be an oppressor and the oppressed, but that we would truly, fully see the humanity of all people. And I think that's what Dr. King's radical love, and Coretta Scott King's radical and righteous love, truly represented."
On Coretta Scott King as a "thought partner":
White-Hammond: "Coretta was ... [an] opera-trained voice, could have gone on to become a major singer at the Met — that was the trajectory she was on. And instead, in many ways, she decides that her calling is to become a thought partner with King.
"Now it's worth noting she didn't get there right away. She wasn't totally enamored of him immediately. But as she begins to really hear what he's talking about — his theology, his politics, what he wants to see happen in the world — that is what wins her over. Because her commitment to justice also runs deep. Her desire to see a shift for her people also is real. And she comes to the conclusion that, being alongside him in the movement work is more of her trajectory than becoming a famous singer.
"I just want to lift that up, because I think that her love and her thought partnership are often deeply underappreciated by many — including myself, until relatively recently. She wasn't just supportive by his side. She had her own thoughts, she had her own ideas, she was one of the people that could push him. She made a conscious decision to also give her life over to a movement, because of her love of Black people and her love for justice."
Bodrick: "Coretta Scott King sent a letter to Twelfth Baptist Church, because the first time she heard Dr. King preach was at Twelfth Baptist. She had a colleague who was our church administrator at the time, who was at New England Conservatory with her, and her name was Mary Powell, and she invited her to come see the new young minister that was at Twelfth Baptist Church that would be preaching. And he preached a sermon called 'Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.' And in that letter, she recounts to us, that was the first time she heard him preach."
Groover: "I had the joy and the opportunity of not only meeting with her, but working under her as a student intern at Morehouse when The King Center was just opened up. And I'll never forget in one of the sessions, just watching her. And if I did not know anything about history and woke up that day and saw her, I would have thought that Coretta Scott King was at that time president of the King Center and a leader of the civil rights movement — not because and not only due to her being a widow of Dr. King, but because she also had, in a very genuine, authentic, full way, that love for civil rights and for the movement."
"King pushes the notion that the love that is worth fighting for is not always the love that is easy to have."The Rev. Mariama White-Hammond
On the ways in which King is romanticized to fit different agendas:
Bodrick: "It's important that we don't allow his call for love to blunt his place in the radical tradition — particularly the radical Black tradition of speaking truth to power. Because as we reflect on both righteous anger and radical love, King is ... not only a part of that, but a huge part of what even gives way to the Black Power movement.
"King saw love not only as a deep commitment and value, but as a means to us framing all of the things that we were experiencing. ... King talked about the ways in which we can't discuss power without love. He talked about the radical commitments to love within community. He also talked about the ways in which the love of God shapes the ways in which we see one another as brothers and sisters to bring about a peaceful outcome."
On King leaning on the aspirations of the movement to improve conditions in the present:
White-Hammond: "I think his point was, 'Let's live into who we want to be, in the world that we are working towards.' And that's still a tension and a debate in movements right now. But I think, reading a lot of his stuff ... what I say to people in my own organizing is, I've had to sit in, I've had to sleep in, I've had to push, but I try to organize in a way that is always an invitation. Even to those that I'm challenging. And I think it comes from the notion [of] at any moment you could choose to do better. You could choose not to hold up this broken system and join me in the fight to create something better.
"Because I do think what is true, and I think I took away from a lot of Dr. King's writing, is that many people hold up a system because it's kind of sort of mostly working for them, and they don't necessarily believe anything better is possible. The mentality is, 'Let me get mine in the system as it is.' His notion is, 'This is not the best we can do. We can do better. And I invite all of you to join me in the better system we could be creating.' "
This article was originally published on January 17, 2022.
This program aired on January 18, 2022.