Happy Birthday, Dr. King

Published 7:52 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2018



My first appointment as a minister was to start a Methodist Church in Greenville in 1966, the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. One of my key lay leaders slyly gave me a sleeve of golf balls imprinted with the initials, MLK, and smilingly told me to have fun “knocking the hell out of them.” I never did.

A few months later, as I headed home from Jaycees to take my wife to the hospital for the birth of our daughter, I heard on the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated on the balcony of a motel in Memphis. Our daughter was born very early the next morning, and I went to WNCT at 6 o’clock to do a live “Morning Meditation” on the Slim Short Show, trying to convey our simultaneous joy over the safe arrival of our little girl and despair over the death of one of my heroes, the person who more than any preacher — other than a couple of my pastors — helped me hear God calling me while a Duke student to become a minister instead of a lawyer. I had heard Dr. King speak to an overflow crowd there in Page Auditorium, and had often been mesmerized by his frequent appearances on television, eventually including his famed “I Have a Dream” speech that was first given in part at a Black church in Durham.

Years later, I had my district superintendent preach in my Raleigh church the Sunday before King’s birthday, and he began: “Martin Luther King Jr. was a troublemaker — thank God!” He went on to tell how King had troubled our nation when it definitely needed troubling, much as the Prophet Elijah had troubled bad King Ahab and his awful wife, Jezebel, and that we were a better nation for it. I’d read virtually all of King’s sermons and his book condemning the Vietnam War which earned him the enmity of then President Lyndon Johnson. And I particularly loved a quote he’d borrowed from a pre-Civil War minister, Theodore Parker, and repeated so often, in Selma and other places, that he made it his own, and President Barack Obama had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I learned that Rev. Parker was also the source of part of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.” Obama also had these immortal words woven into that same rug.

This fall, I served on a commission at Duke created by Duke’s president to deal with replacing the statue of Robert E. Lee that had been removed from the entrance to Duke Chapel after it was slightly defaced following the Charlottesville debacle last August — that day when Nazis and Klan members marched there and ran over and killed an opponent. I had given tours of that beautiful place as an undergraduate and had preached and sung there several times. Our son was married in the chapel, and I’d chaired the search committee that selected its Dean in 2004, so it is a place dear to my heart.

Our task was to suggest a replacement for Lee’s statue. We held long, good meetings involving deans, professors, students and alumni, and I pushed hard to replace Lee with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., thinking along with a couple of my professorial colleagues and other trustees that he was far and away the best choice. Also, it would have placed him opposite Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation leader, for whom King and Daddy King legally had their names changed from Michael to Martin after Daddy King attended a seminar on Luther in Germany in the early 1930s.

But our commission recommended that the space be left vacant for now and more study be given to it and the other five statues lining the entrance. My hope is that King, whose death nearly 50 years ago caused the famed “Vigil” on the Main Quad at Duke that led to better pay for the housekeeping staff, will yet be so honored at Duke. We’ll see.

Despite the best efforts of the late Jesse Helms and others, America will celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. again on this third Monday of January, as we have since President Ronald Reagan first proclaimed it in 1986. Ironically, this year’s proclamation was signed by the current occupant of the White House about one day after making the most outrageously racist comments ever made by an American president, insulting neighboring Caribbean nations and the entire African continent. The veracity of these insults has been verified by both Republican and Democratic senators present when they were said repeatedly and vehemently.

Such behavior hurts all Americans, whatever our race, because it demeans us in the eyes of the world. Baptist preacher/activist Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners Magazine in Washington, D.C., has rightly called racism “America’s original sin.” We’ve come a long way from the days of slavery and Jim Crow, but we still have a long way to go to slay the dragon of racism in this “land of the free, …home of the brave.” May we make a new beginning this Martin Luther King Jr. birthday to become what we claim to be in our Pledge of Allegiance: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Let’s make Dr. King, and all who follow in his train, proud of the great nation we’re still in the process of becoming. How long? Not long. We shall overcome.

Rev. Charles Michael Smith is a native and current resident of Washington.