A year has not passed since that tragic day when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was struck by a bullet that exploded his neck and jaw, when my thoughts and heart have not recalled this giant of a person! Often, I have been criticized for idolizing him by folks not able to understand the bond my soul has experienced with his commanding and devoted spirit. From claims that he was not as smart, as religious, as savvy and as committed as routinely attributed to him to character assassinations for plagiarizing, philandering, and pussyfooting, I have never waned in my abiding appreciation for his superior mind, sincerity of purpose, and self-sacrifice. Certainly, his charismatic leadership was not perfect, for he was a human being. However, his vision of the beloved community, socioeconomic and political justice and equity, militant nonviolent activism, and utilization of democratic social principles was matchless among the annals of time in national and world history. Period!
A week to ten days prior to the murder of King, my father predicted in a somewhat cavalier way that King would probably be killed. He didn’t elaborate on his utterance, but it instigated me to discover what would make someone so angry by such a good and decent individual. My father’s words pierced my spirit when I heard the news bulletin of King’s martyrdom from my bedroom,to which I was sequestering because of some punishment I can no longer recall. The intensity of my interest, and the terrific sadness I felt, compelled my disciplinarian pop to lift his sanctions against me. I was glued to the television set through his long funereal activities. By the summer, I had read Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? My thirteenth birthday was honored by my parents with the gift of the album, The Great March to Freedom, which captured the foreshadowing of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Detroit, Michigan, on June 23, 1963. His speech was so mesmerizing that I could not escape from emotional arousal whenever I subsequently heard his lilting baritone emanating from television, radio, or any other electronic device. Eventually, when cassette tapes came into being, I invested in purchasing the series Martin Luther King Jr. Speaks from the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I memorized many of his sermons and addresses and parroted his manner of speaking. To me, he deserved the moniker of “The Prince of Peace.”
My decision to go to college and to pursue a doctoral degree was the result of years of grappling with how I could carry on the work for which King had given his life. Although I excelled in a number of classes in junior and senior high school, from which I graduated with honors, I was forced into the field of science and entered my baccalaureate institution with the goal of becoming a biochemist. It was not my heart’s yearning, for I could not ascertain how a researcher’s vocation could effectuate positive social change for the oppressed. Very quickly, my naïveté wandered to other academic disciplines until I had to pick a major and settled on government, i.e., political science. In the process, towards the end of my undergraduate program, I had also unofficially minored in English and religion.
The ensuing fall of the year I graduated from Wesleyan University, I ventured to Atlanta to see how I could make more concrete my desire to embrace and practice the nonviolent activism of my hero. I attended Ebenezer Baptist Church for a year, and then elected to enroll at the Morehouse School of Religion, a constituent seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center. I was licensed to preach at Ebenezer, and then returned to my home state of Connecticut, where I transferred to Yale Divinity School. Ultimately, I matriculated at Boston University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in religious and theological studies, with a concentration in social ethics (and the sociology of religion). My choice of B.U. was reached, despite the possibility of continuing at Yale, for one reason alone: King had received his degree in systematic theology from that school nearly thirty years earlier!
I opted first to go into teaching rather than the full-time ministry, for I shared some of King’s criticism of the Church in its lack of full-throttled participation in the struggle for social justice. Instead, as I taught, I also became integrally involved in community organizations that advocated for civil and human rights. This tri-vocational lifestyle—teaching, preaching, and serving—stayed with me for more than thirty-five years. November of this year will mark forty years as an ordained minister and social activist.
As I reflect upon the life and legacy of Dr. King on the occasion of his mutilation some fifty-four years ago, I realize my celebration is bittersweet. The beloved community he had envisioned is far from fulfillment. And many of the issues he sought to address still linger with us today: racism, militarism, and economic exploitation. The battle continues in multifarious ways amid the backlash against democracy, redistribution of wealth, nonviolent resolution of conflict, political empowerment, and human rights and decency. Humbly, I pass the baton to the younger generations to keep on keeping on in the fight for love of neighbor.