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Walking with King: Friends still on journey 35 years later

Jan. 14, 2003

A Special Report By United Methodist News Service*

Before he was "the Rev." or "Dr.," Martin Luther King Jr. was a 15-year-old boy who didn't know if he wanted to be a doctor, lawyer or preacher.

Even at that young age, Dorothy Height could see the qualities and character that would transform King into a world leader.

"His very presence commanded respect," she says.

Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women for more than 40 years, met the young King during a dinner party at the home of Benjamin Mays, then-president of Morehouse College. King had been admitted into college as a gifted student.

"In a sense, Martin Luther King Jr. was like any 15-year-old. He was young and alert, but there was a maturity that one could not fail to sense. There was a kind of depth that was in itself something that I found inspiring," she says.

Height was one of the people King called after the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that resulted in the death of four little African-American girls.

"In one of the darkest days after the bombing of the children in the church, he called up and he said, 'We need women to come in and work and weep with the mothers.'"

It was that sensitivity to the feelings of the mothers of those dead children that stands out in her mind as one of King's lasting legacies.

"He always had...a concern about big issues, but he was equally concerned about what happened to women and to children," Height says. "He had a capacity to bring one into a bigger orbit than you ever dreamed."

King's orbit included many United Methodist leaders like Height. They include bishops, pastors, civil rights activists and a new generation of young people inspired by his passion and commitment to equality. For those who knew him personally, walking with King was an act of courage and a test of faith. They share their stories in "Walking with King," a Jan 14-26 multimedia series from United Methodist News Service.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist pastor, close friend and colleague, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King in 1957. The organization was built on the principle that civil rights are essential to democracy and that all black people should reject segregation absolutely and nonviolently.

"I consider myself blessed to have known him so well and for so long," he says.

Lowery observed that King often prophesized his own death.

"He used to say to me, 'Joe, I'll never live to be 40.' I'd say, 'Come on man, you're gonna live to be old, like ol' Rip Van Winkle…' But he was right. He died at 39."

The fact that King lived with danger and in the shadow of death never affected his commitment to freedom and justice, Lowery says. "It never deterred him in any dangerous decisions or journeys he had to make."

'A prophet for his time'

King's entrance into the civil rights movement came in 1955 as the young president of the Montgomery (Ala.) Improvement Association. He led the group in a 381-day boycott of the city's segregated bus system.

That struggle caught the attention of another pastor, James Lawson, who would also become a renowned figure in the civil rights struggle. Lawson, a United Methodist, heard of King while in India as a missionary.

"I was elated when I read about the Montgomery bus boycott," Lawson says. "In fact, I celebrated. This was something I had been hoping for."

Lawson met King in 1957. "It was a critical moment in my life because I had been thinking I would one day be a minister in the South because of the issue of segregation. When I shared this with him personally, privately and confidentially, Martin said very quietly, 'Don't wait. Come now!' So, I promised him that I would move to the South as quickly as I could, and that launched a relationship of 11 years of working together."

"People as remarkable as Dr. King don't come along very often," says retired United Methodist Bishop James Thomas, a close friend. "He was a prophet for his time. He had a temperament of even balance, a love of nonviolence and an understanding of what it took to make peace."

Thomas and King both addressed a Methodist Youth Conference in 1965. "I spoke after he spoke, which (was) a very hard thing to do," the bishop says.

"I really never met a person who had his ego so much under control and who was so balanced in his approach to life, so thoughtful, and so willing to give himself to a larger cause," he says.

A new political power

Marilyn Clement, a white civil rights advocate who became director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, worked with King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Some of her most significant work with him was in response to a call to ministers across the country to build political power in the South, she said. The Ministers' Leadership Training Program helped black elected officials emerge across the country.

"It has made it possible for us to look at political power in a different way in this country, in terms of women, Hispanics and Native Americans," she says. Working with King, she also created the National Anti-Klan Network, which is now the Center for Democratic Renewal. She is still active in that organization.

Raised in the United Methodist Church, Clement says connecting to King and the civil rights movement was "very spiritual as well as …political. I don't see how we can be Christians without dealing with issues of justice."

Clement says that 40 years later, King's commitment and passion still inspire her.

Retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert met King in 1960 while a seminary student at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. King had been invited to join students in protest of the Jim Crow segregation laws by doing sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters.

"We were arrested and went to jail," Talbert says. "I spent three days and three nights in jail with him."

King taught the students about nonviolence and to love everyone as sisters and brothers, the bishop said.

Talbert remembers protesting and saying, "White folk are not my brothers. The way they treat us, they cannot be our sisters and brothers."

"After finding out George Wallace and I were both Methodist, King said, 'Mel, you know better because George Wallace is a Methodist, and whether you like it or not, he is your brother.' That was a sobering moment for me."

Nonviolent change

King was a prominent advocate of nonviolent protest. His challenge to racial discrimination and segregation helped convince many white Americans to join African Americans in the fight for civil rights.

According to United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White, the civil rights movement was under girded with spiritual and moral principles.

"It meant so much to us who participated in any phase of that struggle to be under girded by the principles of nonviolence, of resistance to evil but resistance lovingly to evil, the understanding that you cannot use the tactics of an oppressor, you had to overcome the oppressor with love."

White did not have a personal relationship with King but has written letters to the clergyman for two decades. He wrote his first letter to King in 1976 as a speech to a human rights commission, identifying contributions and achievements that were made in the area of race or made by black Americans. In 1984, he began a tradition of writing birthday letters to King, a tradition he hopes to continue after he retires this year.

United Methodist Bishop Felton May of Washington, who hosted King at a number of speaking events, wondered what would have happened if the black community had taken pre-emptive strikes against the Ku Klux Klan or other extremists. "What would it have looked like for me to have reacted in such a way to 'get them before they got me'?

"The whole philosophy and spiritual strength around creative nonviolence came to (the) fore, and we did not retaliate violence with violence or terror with terror but we counteracted with love," May says. "Today the job is to find an alternative way in which we respond to terrorism in the world."

Continuing the dream

If King were here today, his friends believe he would be concerned about the war in Iraq, the prevalence of drugs and violence among young people, the scourge of AIDS/HIV across the world, and health care for all people.

The struggle is not over, but the passion for change seems to be missing, some say.

"The righteous indignation that was characteristic in our country over the atrocities and the inequalities in the racial struggle is not here today," Height says.

"If I could talk to King today, I would say, 'We need to do what you asked us to do,'" Talbert says. "That is, honestly living in good human relationships with each other across racial lines."

Says Height: "We have to commit ourselves not only to his dream but to his task…to the task that he made clear of changing the system and making our democracy work for all."

* This report was written by UMNS staff writers Kathy L. Gilbert and Linda Green. "Walking With King" is a special report featuring contributions from the entire UMNS staff: Linda Bloom, Gilbert, Green, Laura Latham, Tim Tanton, Ginny Underwood and Fran Coode Walsh.  News media can contact Green at (615) 742-5470 or

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