It is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. I grew up a black girl in a mostly white fundamental Baptist denomination. Only one white pastor ever let the truth leak out on their opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our youth group climbed into the church van on a Friday evening for a youth meeting at an area church where the pastor barked loudly and carried a big black Bible. He made as many teens as could fit squeeze onto the dreaded first pew. I had brought a notebook to write down the verses he read, but I was too afraid to touch ballpoint to paper. He wanted all eyes trained up front. Without my pen recording his words, much of his message snaked through both ears. But one statement held fast.
“You can do good things and still be outside of God’s will for your life,” he said. “Remember, the most important thing is the salvation of others. Take, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. To the world, he was a great man. But did you know he was a preacher and then he quit preaching to do Civil Rights? He would’ve done better to stick to preaching the Gospel!” he bellowed. He cleared his throat. “Think of how many souls he could have reached for Christ if he had followed his calling.”
To my left and right, I peeped heads nodding in agreement. Something wounded drummed inside my chest. The words replayed themselves: “He would’ve done better to stick to preaching the Gospel!” Oh, but what if he had? I thought. I recalled the “I Have a Dream” speech, portions of which I could recite like Scripture. I thought of the role MLK’s Christianity played in his quest for American civil rights.
If the barometer was preaching salvation through Jesus Christ, then would not Martin Luther King, Jr. be the greatest witness for Christ by his very conduct? He ran out of cheeks to turn and so, proffered the one thing he had left in his possession: life.
So often, I’d heard pastors revere America’s Founding Fathers. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a founding father of my freedoms as an African-American.
I wondered if he felt he had the luxury to “stick to preaching the Gospel” while Emmett Till lay bloated in the Tallahatchie River.
Was this what most fundamental Baptists thought of the Civil Rights Movement: a clamorous throng led by misguided preachers who shirked soul-winning duty? (Yes. King wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail for this same reason 50 years ago.)
Right or wrong, I was glad King found his calling in physical salvation, in lifting the burden from the soles of black folk to speak to the souls of black folk.
I swallowed the acid creeping into the back of my throat. The pastor kept preaching, but I had heard all I needed to hear:
Don’t quit your day job, boy.