I still remember the day in early elementary school when I discovered that I shared a birthday with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The coincidental connection of January 15 has been a secret source of personal pride for me ever since. When I shared my elementary school discovery with my parents, they encouraged me to reflect on his life and legacy whenever I needed a topic for a school project. That was an important encouragement from a white family from Arkansas. As a result, in grade school, I wrote simple biographies on his life. As I grew older, I read and listened to many of his sermons and speeches for use as resources for homiletic homework projects and class speeches. As a college student, I visited the Civil Rights Museum housed around the Lorraine Hotel where King was tragically assassinated on the balcony outside room 306. The Civil Rights Museum is host to the bus that Rosa Parks took a stand-in by sitting down and a replica of the Birmingham jail where Dr. King resided for a little over a week and wrote one of his most important letters, articulating the motivations for a nonviolent approach to civil disobedience. The museum also displays the various weapons and artifacts used to enslave, abuse, and murder African Americans throughout American history. Seeing the displays of his life and the lives of all African Americans struggling for equality and human dignity deeply impacted me in a way that still lingers 20 years after seeing them for the first time. Since then I have even been fortunate enough to meet people who were King’s classmates at Crozer Seminary or who worked alongside him.
Yet through all those basic introductions to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I did not know or understand his connections with American Baptist Churches USA until I had been an American Baptist myself for many years. I knew he was ordained by his home church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, at the age of 19. He later pastored at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery before returning to his home church as an associate pastor to his father. These congregations are intimately connected to the National Baptist Convention, an African American Baptist body, where King Jr. served briefly as vice president of their tradition’s Sunday school union.
So why do American Baptists claim Martin Luther King Jr. as one of our own? The biggest link we have historically would be King’s attendance at Crozer Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, from 1948 to 1951. Crozer was founded by American Baptists and used to train American Baptist pastors. In 1970 Crozer merged with Rochester Theological Seminary and relocated to Rochester, New York, forming Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. According to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, King was drawn to the school’s unorthodox reputation and liberal theological leanings. It was at Crozer that King strengthened his commitment to the Christian social gospel, developed his initial interest in Gandhian ideas, was first exposed to pacifism, and developed his ideas about nonviolence as a method of social reform. He graduated as valedictorian and class president.[i]
Five years after his graduation, on July 23, 1956, King addressed the American Baptist Home Mission Societies gathering in Green Lake, Wisconsin, where he delivered an address he titled “Non-Aggression Procedures to Interracial Harmony” in response to the question “How will the oppressed peoples of the world wage their struggle against the forces of injustice?” During this address, King laid out his purpose in practicing nonviolent protest in a world shaped by violence. First, it is active resistance, not a passive submission to oppression. Second, it seeks to redeem the oppressor and pursue reconciliation. Third, nonviolent resistance protects the soul of the protestor by rooting them in love instead of hate.
These foundational motivations for nonviolent resistance shaped much of the heart of the civil rights movement in the years to follow. They were strengthened through participants signing commitment cards, pledging to engage in a rule of life laid out as “ten commandments” of spiritual disciplines that included a meditation on the life of Jesus and his teachings, prayer, sacrifice, service, community engagement, and love of friend and foe.
Many American Baptists joined the civil rights movement by supporting King’s work and engaging in nonviolent resistance, promoting new legislation, and leading congregations and schools into new integration. Specifically, the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board sought to implement American Baptist resolutions on civil rights and to encourage pastors and churches as they navigated local efforts in civil rights. Through this consistent outreach, many congregations in the South became dually aligned with American Baptists to have access to MMBB and American Baptist Home Mission Societies ministry efforts. MMBB collected an offering of $4,000 in 1963 to help rebuild King’s home after its bombing in 1956. King later joined MMBB as a member. In April 1968, following King’s assassination, the provisions of the MMBB death policy helped to support King’s family.
American Baptists claim Martin Luther King Jr. as one of our own because of these and other connections. Many American Baptists were friends, colleagues, classmates, and supporters of King and his calling. We honor his leadership and faithful Christian example of peaceful resistance to oppression, violence, and inequality of all kinds. He was a model of the intentional efforts necessary to unite people from various backgrounds into a movement for change. He was not a perfect man, but he was a man worthy of the recognitions and honors we remember him for especially on January 15.
Much work still needs to be done. The past few years remind us how far we have yet to go before we achieve genuine equality. There is still too much division in our country, in our churches, and in our hearts. Now is a good time to reflect again on King’s model for nonviolent protest to bring about peace and justice to a world still marred by injustice and violence. We must continue to practice nonviolent, active resistance in areas of oppression. We should not only look for ways to name the evil in our world but look for paths toward redemption and reconciliation with others. And we must do these things in love for God and neighbor, or else we will be shaped by our hatred and fear of the other.
Dates like January 15 help us remember we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us to show us the loving way forward into peacefully integrated communities. I am grateful to share a birthday with Martin Luther King Jr. I hope I never forget who and what he did for us all.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He is the author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, published by Judson Press. Visit table-life.org to learn more about his ministry and writing projects.
- The Martin Luther King Jr Research and Education Institute is a valuable resource of King’s life and legacy. It hosts a timeline of his life, his connections with various groups, and provides copies of his written and oral works.
- Marin Luther King Jr,. “Why We Can't-Wait,” King Legacy 4 (Boston: Beacon, 2000), 69–70.
- Everett C. Goodwin, “MMBB A Pioneer in Employee Benefits: The First 100 Years” (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2012), 152–56
Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash