By all accounts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a selfless, humble man whose dynamic leadership, charisma and stirring speeches earned him iconic status. He fought vigorously for a cause he held dear without ever raising a fist, even receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his pacifistic activism. And he was a lofty dreamer, whose assassination on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, proved to be one of the nation's worst nightmares in a tumultuous era that had already witnessed the social blight of the American South, the start of the controversial Vietnam War, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent counterculture of America's youth.
Early on, King sensed an innate calling to serve others, but it is doubtful that he could have ever envisioned the capacity in which he would serve. In a King biography he penned for the New Georgia Encyclopedia, John A. Kirk, an award-winning author and professor of U. S. History at the University of London (United Kingdom), explained, "King first considered studying medicine or law but decided to major in sociology. He ultimately found the call to the ministry irresistible, however."
In 1954, King and his wife, Coretta Scott, whom he had married the year before, relocated from Boston (where they had met in college) to Montgomery where King would fill the vacated pastoral position at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Though he had not anticipated playing a major part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which resulted from Rosa Parks' refusal to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, King permitted meetings to take place at Dexter Avenue that led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). At the urging of others within the African American community, King wound up leading the organization.
Little did King know that his initial stance in Montgomery would catapult him to the forefront of the unfolding civil rights movement in the United States---a cause for which he would become internationally known. Along the way, a diverse group of supporters---ranging from entertainers and politicians to community leaders and disenfranchised college students---openly expressed their support for the movement. Though some boldly participated in King's widely publicized marches, others such as world-renowned evangelist Dr. Billy Graham sought to transform the nation in circles where they felt their efforts could prove most effective.
In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Dr. Graham recounts the conversations he and King had regarding how they each might reshape the society through their own unique ministries and constituencies. "Early on, Dr. King and I spoke about his method of using nonviolent demonstrations to bring an end to racial segregation," Graham wrote. "He urged me to keep on doing what I was doing---preaching the Gospel to integrated audiences and supporting his goals by example---and not to join him in the streets."
It is apparent, in hindsight, that a combination of actions---ranging from demonstrations by King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to support from prominent politicos such as Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and the Kennedys to efforts of white religious leaders such as Dr. Graham---roiled the moral consciousness of the nation and prompted unprecedented changes in law and attitudes.
Reflecting upon the life and profound contributions of Dr. King, various news organizations and print publications recently featured interviews with a number of individuals who had worked alongside King in the struggle for civil rights. While there is much to be learned from those who had, at times, witnessed bigotry and discrimination at its worst and yet saw their diligence and sacrifice foster improvements in integration and equality, I was compelled to interview someone who was neither present during the Montgomery Bus Boycott nor living at the time of King's death.
Savannah native Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock is senior pastor at Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, a congregation formerly pastored or co-pastored by Dr. King, Martin Luther King Sr., A. D. King (Dr. King's brother) and Alfred Daniel Williams (Dr. King's maternal grandfather). During their tenures, Reverend Williams, his son and grandsons championed civil rights and steadfastly pushed for positive social advances.
Under the leadership of Dr. Warnock and his immediate predecessor, the Reverend Joseph L. Roberts Jr., Ebenezer's social and political influence has hardly been diminished in the decades that have followed the civil rights movement. The church continues to make an impact far beyond the confines of Atlanta where its ministry has been going strong since 1886. Past stops made by sitting U. S. presidents as well as recent visits from U. S. Senator Barack Obama and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, attest to Ebenezer's national prominence.
So, on April 4, 2008 --the fortieth anniversary of Dr. King's assassination, I was particularly interested in talking with Dr. Warnock. I was curious to know what it might be like to minister to a congregation once led by Dr. King. I was anxious to hear his thoughts on the strides our country has made as a result of the efforts of King and his colleagues. And I was especially interested in hearing his perspective on how we, as a nation, should deal with the remaining racial disparities. After all, a number of issues still divide the races, and prejudice and racism -- though sometimes less overt these days -- are still thriving in some circles.
Reminiscent of Dr. King in many respects, Dr. Warnock is passionately devoted to his calling, well-versed in the scriptures, formally educated and eloquent in speech. His answers prove thought-provoking, reminding us that we all still have a role to play in shaping our country into a nation where true equality, racial harmony and brotherly love abound.
Greg Freeman: As senior pastor there at Ebenezer Baptist Church, I'm sure you feel incredibly honored to serve in a church that was the spiritual nucleus of the civil rights movement. How has the work of your predecessors influenced or impacted your ministry at Ebenezer?
Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock: Indeed, it is an honor to serve as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church---what I like to call America's freedom church, the church of Martin Luther King Jr.---particularly as one who was born after the civil rights movement. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. I was born in 1969. And so, as we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his death, in a real sense we are witnessing and indeed -- I and many others, I think -- inviting a new generation of leaders who have benefited greatly from the great sacrifice that he and others made. So, I'm humbled by the opportunity to serve.
Greg: Since the civil rights movement, we know that equal rights have been legislated and blatant discrimination has been made illegal, but I think everyone would agree that you can enact every law in the world but it doesn't necessarily change hearts and minds. Dr. King advocated love and unity, and I tend to think that we really need to be in one accord to achieve true equality. What do you think the Church . . . and when I say the church, I'm talking about God's people as a whole . . . can do to foster some reconciliation and a sense of oneness? After all, on Sunday mornings we're pretty much the most segregated group of people in the country. So, what can we do as believers to really make great strides?
Dr. Warnock: I would argue that we need both love and law. Love is the supreme principle that drove Dr. King's ministry, but it was a public ministry that sought to transform the society. Somehow, society has to find a way to institutionalize the law of love in its public policy and in its laws. Or else, the weakest in the society will always be at a distinct disadvantage. I think the founders of the country understood that, and they wanted to make sure that no minority would be subject to the tyranny of the majority, that somehow through our laws we would concretize and institutionalize the supreme principle of love . . . love which becomes concrete in equal access to public education and health care and all of the resources that all freedom-loving people would embrace. So, that's part of the struggle and a critical part that we must never diminish. The other side of the struggle, as you point out, is the work not only to transform society but also to transform people's hearts and minds. I think there's a way in which those two things feed each other. I think that we reinforce our commitment to love by what we do in terms of our public policy, but then in our homes and in our schools and certainly in our churches we have to reinforce that the scripture is right. Of one blood, God has made all nations to dwell upon the face of the earth. And the power of Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice, the reason it is so powerful even as it rings from the crypt, is that he called us to our highest and our best and he helped us to see in his own words that we are all "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." What affects one directly affects all indirectly. If there's any institution that ought to lead in this regard, certainly it is the Church of Jesus Christ.
Greg: Would you say there is any one particular thing or is it a series of things that really should be done to help us see his dream manifested throughout the nation? Some would suggest we need a spiritual awakening or revival. Some might argue for a change in leadership. Others would say we need less apathy among the current leadership. Perhaps we need more legislative reform. What are your thoughts on this?