John A. Williams on Martin Luther King, Jr. & the Black church

King had refused offers to pastor churches in the North, but had returned South because he and Coretta said that they “had something of a moral obligation to return—at least for a few years.” He would “satisfy [his] fondness for scholarship later by turning to the teaching field.” His doctoral dissertation, A Comparison of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, does indicate that he leaned more toward systematic theology than preaching. One of his professors at Boston University told me that it was still King’s hope, late in his career, to leave public life and get back to his studies.

So now he was back, the idea of studies behind him, the “moral obligation” ready to be fulfilled. As fall eased into winter, white tempers that had flared over some tentative attempts by blacks to integrate, still burned at the indignity. But black people have tempers too, and in Montgomery they lost them.

Race made news in 1954 and 1955; it moved from the back pages of the newspapers to the headlines. On television, which was still trying to break away from patterns set by radio, the Montgomery boycott became the biggest show going, and the show’s star, Martin King, was a natural for the part.

You heard talk in the black communities that “that cat who was leading the boycott was ‘Heavy, man, heavy.’ ” “Had gone to Harvard." “Was a doctor something or other.” “Brilliant, baby.” The press was more accurate. While at Crozer he was a graduate student in the philosophy department at the University of Pennsylvania, and while at Boston working toward a degree in systematic theology, he was a special student in the philosophy department at Harvard. As a junior at Morehouse in 1947, he was ordained by his father, and in his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, and he was assistant pastor there for two years and copastor for four.

King was not one of those oldtime Baptist ministers, still to be found in many black churches. No fire and brimstone from him. Indeed, he was often accused of talking down to his congregations. For example, he often tried to explain what agape was, a kind of love he had explored in his doctoral thesis: “Agape affirms the other unconditionally. It is agape that suffers and forgives. It seeks the personal fulfillment of the other.” King's father was reported to have told him after such a sermon that he should preach and not teach. But young King was not too “high flown” for the press; its representatives liked him. [pp. 26-7]

After leaving Africa where he had also visited Nigeria, King went to Europe—to Rome, Paris, London, and Geneva. In Paris he saw the expatriate black novelist Richard Wright; they spent the better part of one day talking. I find it remarkable now that neither man in his writings has mentioned the visit or what they talked about. Wright, we know, had an abiding caution about preachers that verged on total mistrust. Friends of Wright report that he said of the meeting that he thought King was an honest man. [p. 33]

Martin King was not an ignorant man. He must have known to some degree all that I've set down here and more. [On the politics of white and Black Protestant churches, the Catholic Church, etc.] And he did once say that he “had doubts that religion was intellectually responsible.” He also must have had doubts that, given its history, the church in America could be swung over to the support—the complete and unequivocal support—of civil rights. Like Don Quixote, he tilted with windmills and he had to lose; there was just too much white power for him to contend with.

And he realized this for, even as he fought futilely to involve the church, he increasingly left it out of his writings, writings edged by his frustration toward a new and escalating militancy. “I am not sad that black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable.” [pp. 145-6]

If King was aware of the power aligned against him in the church, and had had doubts about the intellectual honesty of religion, why then did he become a churchman? Here and there over the years he mentioned that he wished to return to his books, to indulge in scholarship and even to teach at a university.

The events that created King were at fever pitch long, long I before he was born, and they were all steeped in racism. Being a black man, there was no escape for King; being of the black middle class, his efforts to find himself were even more complicated than those of the average black man. [p. 148, beginning of chapter 14]

King’s presence in Montgomery had been as carefully plotted as the presence of, say, the Kennedys in the U.S. Senate. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was the place where the coming big men of the black Baptist organization served; it was a step on the escalator. King himself, with barely muted pride, described that first pastorate. The church was “comparatively small, with a membership of around three hundred people, but it occupied a central place in the community. Many influential and respected citizens—professional people with substantial incomes—were among its members . . . [Dexter] was sort of a silk-stocking church catering only to a certain class. Often it was referred to as the ‘big folks’ church.’ ”

Lomax comments on Dexter: “As King well knew before he assumed the pastorate, the Dexter Avenue church did not enjoy a good reputation among Montgomery’s black masses. . . . The plain implication was that nonprofessional and uneducated Negroes were not welcome at the Dexter Avenue altar. . . . It was this class discrimination in his own church, then, that first demanded Martin’s attention.” Lomax recalls that King’s predecessor once became involved in an argument with a bus driver and then called for other black passengers to walk off the bus. “Not only did the Negroes remain in their seats, but one member of Dexter Avenue Church rebuked [the Reverend] Johns for his actions, saying, ‘you should know better!’ ”

William Robert Miller writes more of the Dexter congregation in his biography, Martin Luther King, ]r.: “. . . the Dexter congregation included teachers from Alabama State College, as well as upper-income professionals, giving it a tone more intellectual and less emotional than the average.”

Given King’s upbringing, education, and his father’s plans for him, King would very probably have refused to pastor a lesser church. No minister, as Lomax implies, accepts the leadership of a church without knowledge of its solvency or lack thereof, or of the composition of its congregation. King was later quoted as saying that he didn’t understand the shouting and stamping, the “emotionalism” of Negro religion. It “embarrassed” him. Certainly an “intellectual” congregation appealed to him, also its financial ranking. Today’s spiritual leaders do not live on faith alone. Religion is, after all, a business. The spires of the churches may stretch for the clouds, but the foundations are settled in dollars, or their pastors would like them to be. [pp. 156-7]

Birmingham was the turning point. No longer would nonviolence be the supreme, unquestioned philosophy or policy for black people seeking their share of America; and in the North, Malcolm X was making sure of that, downgrading King’s every campaign.

More important perhaps was the observation that prayers or prayer preceded every act of every campaign. The prayers signaled to observers that the demonstrators had a great deal less faith in their marches than they should have had. The pattern, of course, was established by Martin King. [pp. 181-2]

SOURCE: Williams, John A. The King God Didn't Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Coward-McCann, 1970.

Martin Luther King, Jr. & G.W.F. Hegel

Martin Luther King’s Debt to Hegel
by John Ansbro

Richard Wright Study Guide

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe


John A. Williams - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

An Interview with John A. Williams
(The Harvard Crimson, May 19, 1971)

A Tribute To John Williams, The Man Who Wrote 'I Am'
by Karen Grigsby Bates (NPR, July 13, 2015)

A Knock at Midnight (1967 version)
by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Volume II: Rediscovering Precious Values, September 1951-November 1955

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 3 October 2021

Site ©1999-2021 Ralph Dumain