Catching Up with a Dream (Part 2)

Church as Conscience

The son, grandson, and great-grandson of Atlanta preachers, King was raised under the religious pieties of the black Baptist church. "King came out of a very fundamental, evangelical church," explains H. Malcolm Newton, director of urban studies at Denver Seminary. "They taught the Bible at Ebenezer Baptist Church [in Atlanta]. That was his roots."

King's intellectual curiosity and desire to understand the very unchristian race situation in the South (combined with his education at liberal northern seminaries) compelled him to ask questions that would stretch his theology far beyond fundamentalism. Nonetheless, on a practical level, King's Baptist heritage always shone through. "In the quiet recesses of my heart," he often said, "I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."It was no accident that an effort as socially positive as the civil-rights movement began in the church, says noted New York pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, a member of President Clinton's Racial Advisory Board. "Martin Luther King proved that our faith and our struggle should never be separate. Faith and struggle—when coupled—make us more effective leaders."

"Dr. King taught us that Christianity could be a vigorous voice for conscience in this nation," adds Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, an ecumenical coalition of mostly African-American seminaries in Atlanta. "He showed us that the church did not have to marginalize itself. That it could play a major and necessary role in the public square."In August 1963, King's movement organized its massive March on Washington, the event that begat the legendary "I Have a Dream" speech and represented the pinnacle of his fame. A Nobel Peace Prize came in 1964. And there ...

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