About today’s speaker: As a black woman from the South who grew up during the Civil Rights movement in which her parents participated, Gwen Hadden has dedicated her career to working to ensure that the rights of all people are respected. She was the former Director of Civil Rights for the Boston Housing Authority and has over 20 years experience in both the public and private sector in the areas of diversity, cultural competency, generational communication, organizational development and change management. With her life experience, professional expertise, warmth and wisdom Gwen has unique insights to share.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born Michael King Jr in 1929. Named for his Baptist minister father, Michael King, SR, both names were changed after his father visited Germany in 1934 after being inspired by his visits to the sites associated with the reformation leader Martin Luther. In 1944 at the young age of 15, Martin Luther King, Jr entered Morehouse College and at 18 felt that he had been called to the ministry and became a minister at his father’s church. Born into a family of ministers, (his maternal grandfather was the minister of Ebenezer before MLK, Sr.) he was also called to leadership. As the spiritual leaders of Black communities, ministers were also called to lead in other ways. Martin witnessed this in his family.
Martin lived in the South during a transitional period in its history. Black people were constrained by the Jim Crow laws that restricted most of the areas of their lives: segregated schools where often schoolbooks and facilities were extremely shoddy; riding on public transportation required sitting in the Colored section only and if a White person needed a seat, the Black person could be required to stand and give up that seat, no matter the gender, physical condition, or age. Shopping required extra caution – the need to enter through the colored doors, drink from the Colored fountain and be watchful of whites in checkout lines who may have wanted the Black person to step aside for them, often when the Black maid was shopping for her White family. No matter your age or station in Black society, all Black people were called by their first name and all Whites had to be addressed with Mr. or Mrs. and always sir or ma’am. Imagine what this must have looked like to young Martin as he grew intellectually and spiritually. Imagine how tired Black people were of these conditions; so tired that they gathered together and began their efforts to become full citizens of the United Stated of America, much of which their ancestors had built in some way.
Martin began to formulate a vision of the end of segregation and discrimination and to grow into his leadership potential at an early age. The Washington Post wrote a story about Martin when he was 22 years old. He and several of his friends went into a bar to have a drinks but the waitress refused to serve them. The four young people refused to leave. The bar owner threatened them, fired his gun in the air and forced them to leave.
But this wasn’t the Deep South. It was Maple Shade, N.J., and the state had recently passed an anti-discrimination law that King cited at the bar. Here is where he began to ennoble himself for leadership. With the help of the local NAACP, King and his friends filed a legal complaint with the police against the bar owner. But the complaint went nowhere when three white University of Pennsylvania students who witnessed the incident backed out and refused to testify about what had happened. This was a pivotal lesson for King on the limits of Northern liberalism.
At the young age of 26, now Dr. King a resident of Montgomery, Alabama began his efforts to desegregate public facilities when the Montgomery bus boycott was initiated. And as we all know, his leadership in the Civil Rights movement grew from this point on. Dr. King led by his words and his deeds. He believed that in order to effectuate change, leaders had to have total commitment to the cause. He demonstrated this commitment by living with his family in the community that he was trying to change. Even after his home was bombed and his wife feared for their lives and the lives of their children, he would not move. Dr. King was arrested more than 25 times, he was attacked and almost died in New York City. From a NYTimes article: On Sept. 20, 1958. Dr. King was at Blumstein’s, a store on West 125th Street in Harlem, where he was signing copies of his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” In walked a woman — dressed to the nines — presumably for an autograph from the 29-year-old civil rights activist. But hidden beneath her lovely outfit were a letter opener and a loaded .25-caliber pistol. The woman approached Dr. King, drew the letter opener from her purse and stabbed him in the chest. Dr. King could not immediately remove the blade; it was too close to his heart. He was told not to move an inch, not to speak. He was rushed to Harlem Hospital for emergency surgery. The doctors later told him that any sudden movement — so much as a sneeze — could have cost him his life. The frightening, near-fatal New York episode later became a point of inspiration in Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address, which he delivered on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, the day before he was assassinated.
Imagine being so devoted to a cause that you would continue to work for it having come close to death.
Dr. King was not only a leader of a movement, but he was also a leader of leaders. Next month the AVC diversity and inclusion study group will be discussing Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail written in 1963. In that letter he addresses questions from fellow clergy, leaders in their own right, including the question of why he was in Birmingham when they felt that was not his territory. And he replied: “Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” In so many ways in his life, Martin Luther King was prescient. I look at what is happening in our country now, in the states and in the Capital and I share the thoughts I and others have had all along: the ongoing problems of racism cannot be isolated. What happens to some of us, will eventually affect all of us. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” At the march on Washington in 1963, he said “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
Dr. King also lived a life believing that change was inevitable but not without pain and struggle, that disrupting the status quo was essential for change. He never believed that just because things were a certain way, that that was the right way. He believed that in order for positive change to happen, everyone of all races had to be involved.
Against the advice and support of many of his closest friends and advisors, at the August 1965 annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) convention, Dr. King called for a halt to bombing in North Vietnam, urged that the United Nations be empowered to mediate the conflict, and told the crowd that “what is required is a small first step that may establish a new spirit of mutual confidence … a step capable of breaking the cycle of mistrust, violence and war”.
King’s opposition to the war provoked criticism from members of Congress, the press, and from his civil rights colleagues who argued that expanding his civil rights message to include foreign affairs would harm the black freedom struggle in America. And although he tempered his remarks to try to assuage some of his critics, he stayed strong in his beliefs about the war in Viet Nam.
Being the thought leader that he was, Dr. King drilled down to what he felt were essential and interlocked issues that must be dealt with. In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, given on December 11, 1964, Dr. King spoke directly about the evils of racial injustice, war, and poverty. “This problem of poverty,” Dr. King says, “is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves.” He was never afraid of disrupting the status quo in favor of change that would improve the lives of all people.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader yes, and one who was not afraid to dream. We all know about his I have a dream speech where he said “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Doesn’t this dream resonate with us today? This is our hope and it is one of the legacies that Matin Luther King left to us.
If Dr. King were alive today, I think he would be working tirelessly to bring us together as a nation. He would find a way to reach across all aisles and extend his hand in fellowship. He said “Those of us who lived in the 20th Century are privileged to live in one of the most momentous periods of human history. It is an exciting age, filled with hope. It is an age in which a new world order is being born. We stand today between two worlds—the dying old and the emerging new. I am aware of the fact that there are those who would argue that we live in the most ghastly period of human history They would argue that we are going backwards instead of forward, that we are retrogressing instead of progressing. But far from representing retrogression or tragic hopelessness, the present tension represents the necessary pains that accompany the birth of anything new. It is both historically and biologically true that there can be no birth or growth without birth and growing pains. Wherever there is the emergence of the new and the fading of the old, that is historically true and so the tensions which we witness in the world today are indicative of the fact that a new world is being born and an old world is passing away.” He went on to suggest some things that we must do to live in this new world, to prepare to live in it with the challenges that confront us. He said “The first thing is this, that we must rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns, with a broader concern for all humanity. You see, this new world is a world of geographical togetherness. No individual can afford to live alone now. The nation cannot live alone for we have been brought together. We live in one world geographically. We face the great problem of making it one spiritually.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. lives today in his legacies in so many ways. You have probably heard that Rev. Raphael Warnock, the new senator from Georgia is the spiritual leader of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Sr and Jr’s church and the church of the beloved John Lewis, representative from Georgia who left us in 2020 . You may have heard that Jon Ossoff, the second new senator from Georgia, started his career in politics by becoming a volunteer in John Lewis office. But there is a more direct connection between all three of these men and Dr. King. John Lewis wrote a letter to Martin Luther King in 1957 that resulted in Lewis becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement becoming one of the youngest people to work side by side with Dr. King. So, the line goes from Dr. King to John Lewis; from John Lewis to Rev. Warnock and from John Lewis to Jon Ossoff. What a legacy! Dr. King was instrumental in changing Georgia from Red to Blue.
His legacies are many, his vision being manifested in ways in which he could only dream. He didn’t know about Gloucester, Massachusetts and this beautiful church on a hill. But Dr. King popularized the notion of the “Beloved Community”, one in which he envisioned the Beloved Community as a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings. For me his legacy lives on in the work we do in this church. We strive to feed the hungry and house the homeless, to understand each other across all differences and to explore the ways that we can impact the world in better ways.
In a speech on “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” in 1957, Dr. King said: “ But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization. “ Let us continue to step forward together in Martin Luther King Jr.s legacy to build the beloved community.