Why only a pastor could have become Martin Luther King Jr.
In Louisville, Kentucky, in the library of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, behind the stacks of books, stands bookshelves containing doctoral dissertations. (In order to graduate with a Ph.D. degree, one has to write a 150-300 page “dissertation.”) Amongst those dissertations is one with the long title of “The Slave Religious Experience in Biracial Churches in North and South Carolina from 1822-1861.” That would be mine.
I chose to focus on African American Church History because I am interested in why African Americans and whites in the South do not frequently worship together today. Martin Luther King reflected this by writing, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” As I studied American Church History, though, I realized there was a time when blacks and whites commonly worshipped together: before the Civil War.
Right, that time when most blacks in the South were slaves. Blacks and whites frequently worshipped together because (after the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion) it was illegal in most southern states for blacks to gather without a white presence, to travel without a pass, or to learn to read. Most worship services in the South consisted of whites in front and blacks in back. Even so, slaves continued to meet in black-only worship settings, only now in secret. Over time, the slave preacher became the underground head of the slave community. At a time when the slaves were denied any (or few) leadership roles by the whites, the slaves established their own leader, the slave preacher. So it was in the slave underground religious services, known as the invisible institutions, that leaders were groomed and developed. Fast forward over the Civil War (1861-65) to the period of Reconstruction (after 1877), when the federal government sought to rebuild the war-torn South. As the ex-slaves built new lives, they often turned to their own churches for help, the churches that used to be illegal and meet secretly in the woods. And the ex-slave preacher who used to slip away to preach in the woods now found himself the head of a struggling and very poor community. So, the black preacher played an immensely important role in the development of the African American community after the Civil War. And even more so as Jim Crow/discrimination laws came into effect, with the added burden of the Ku Klux Klan. So the standing of the black preacher in the life of the African American community grew even more. In addition, African American clergy were the main leaders in the African American community that the whites in the South could admire and respect. Sure, African Americans became doctors, lawyers, even college presidents. But some in the white community could always say that they were not as good, or as educated, and ignore them. But to be an ordained person is have a stamp of approval by the same God who ordains blacks and whites. So, when it came time to develop greater equality for blacks, to strive for civil rights for blacks, that leader of the movement would have to be a pastor. Just as was true time and again since slavery days, the person to stand up, who the whites could admire, would be a pastor. I think it is safe to say that if Martin Luther King Jr., had not been a pastor, he would not have become Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader.
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