I had the privilege working with Martin Luther King in the last two years of his life. I have known him as my employer, my minister and friend and not only him, but also the rest of his family.
Furthermore I am able, out of personal experience, to say something about the fantastic group of people around him in his organization and church. Martin Luther King was only the leader of the team. Without the very great commitment and effort of many persons, who were often just so inspiring but who never appeared in the media, the Movement would never have come as far as it did.
Moreover, what appeared in the news was only the tip of the iceberg. The speeches, demonstrations and marches were dramatic moments, but it was the many years of very creative and constructive programs, which by definition were not spectacular, that have ensured that the dramatic confrontations, which obtained the first page of the newspaper, were not short-lived but had enduring meaning for human rights and peace and not only in the U.S., but eventual for the whole world.
Dr. King’s own philosophy was personalism. The approach of this article is similar because I have known him personally. There are enough biographies concerning him written. Those who want to start to know more about his inspirational sources can best begin with the collection of sermons in Strength to Love.
Instead of a scholastic approach I chose a more anecdotal treatment. Thus stories and no foot notes: the biblical manner.
My involvement with Martin Luther King.
As a teenager I watched the news of the demonstrations of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1965, where Martin Luther King began. When Dr. King was stabbed by a black woman in Harlem and lay in critical condition in the hospital, I prayed for him.
During my theology study in Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, there was someone in my dormitory, Homer McCall, who was member of Dr. King’s church in Atlanta, Georgia. When Dr. King spoke in Connecticut I went with Homer to my first Civil Rights rally. Here, especially in the music, was a religious atmosphere which I missed in the theological school. The hall was so full that we had to stand back stage. Dr. King was escorted by a dozen policemen, but before he went to the mayor and other VIPs, he walked over to Homer and asked him how it was going with his study. It was the first time that I had heard the gospel in explained such a socially relevant manner.
From time to time guest preachers came and told their experiences in the South with the dreadful injustices against the Blacks. I could hardly believe that people even maltreated children going to Sunday school.
President Johnson in 1964, signed after the march on Washington and the death of President Kennedy in 1963, a law which prohibited segregation. In spring of 1965 Dr. King started the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement.
In theory everyone has the right to vote, but for blacks in the South it was different in practice. To be able to vote it is necessary to first register and people in the South had to prove that they could read and write. For whites a signature was sufficient, but if a black professor of English could recite the constitution without one mistake even this was not enough. In some places an attempt to register was perilous. Dr. King’s idea was to bring the injustices to the conscience of the nation and the collective conscience would eventually bring political change.
The conscience of the nation was then suddenly awakened on a Sunday evening, in the spring of 1965, after a television broadcast about the holocaust, images came of police men with horses riding in a cloud of teargas over non-violent marchers and relentlessly clubbing defenceless men and women in Selma, Alabama. Over 70 people were brought to the black hospitals. The White hospitals refused them. Hereafter in America this day was referred to as “Bloody Sunday”.
I missed the television broadcast, but it was a bulletin in the newspaper which attracted my attention. A white minister, Rev. James Reeb, had come down from the North to Selma after Dr. King had called for people, especially clergymen, to come and protest. On exiting a Black café he had been bludgeoned by racists and lay in coma. Later he died. Because I had nothing better to do I went to the commemoration service. During the service a preacher spoke who was just back from Selma. He said, “There was a crucifixion in Selma. We have people needed for social resurrection. Then I knew in my heart that it my turn was go. The following morning I took along two other students in my car and traveled to Selma over 1000 km away. The black district in Selma had been surrounded by the police force. I had to keep guard while the others phoned to see how we could get in. I looked at the bridge where people had been beaten and I thought, “I can still go back.”
Then we went the black district and entered the church that was the action center. People slept on the church pews?. We went to the barricade, which the people called “the Berlin Wall”. On the one hand were heavily armed policemen, with fear in their eyes. On the other hand where I stood now, there were a handful people with glad faces who sang, prayed and testified about non-violent actions. A group of children sang a song, a freedom song, based on an old Negro spiritual, which I only heard in Selma. It went: “I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart.” Then they sang, “I love Dr. King”, “Ralph Abernathy”, (King’s right hand man and later successor), and with the same conviction, they also sang “I love George Wallace”, (the racist governor of Alabama), and “I love state troopers”, (the policemen who had filled the hospital with their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters). I had a Philips portable tape recorder which I had brought back from Europe with me. When people in Montgomery a day later were clubbed by policemen, I made in addition recordings. There was a public relations expert, Bill Stein, who came as a volunteer and during and after the march from Selma to Montgomery (1965), together we sent everything that was newsworthy via the telephone to the radio and television stations. This 100 mile long March in which thousands of people eventually joined, including many famous actors, musicians and movie stars led to a national law which guaranteed the voting right for blacks.
In the summer of 1965 I was asked to come and help as a volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, King’s organization. After the summer they wanted to hire me as a staff member in the public relations department. I got the chance of doing this as an internship. I eventually became the Assistant Director of Public Relations. My main functions were making the recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and sermons and then sending them to the radio and television stations. Later I edited these recordings into radio programs which are still being transmitted. Because of this I came to better understand how the Evangelists processed the stories about Jesus and wrote them down in the Gospels.
Eventually after a two year internship, Dr. King said to me in a personal conversation that I should return now to finish my study, otherwise I would probably never do it. I followed his advice.
The day after I had succeeded in getting one of his closest employees, Dr. James Bevel, to come to Yale as speaker, Dr. King was assassinated. I went immediately to Atlanta and was responsible for the coordination of the television broadcast of the funeral service. After I finished my study I returned to SCLC and during the Poor Peoples campaign (1968) was I liaison between SCLC and the national Council of Churches. After a year there was only enough money pay a tenth of staff. Thus I became unemployed. A year later I was ordained in my own village church. Dr. King senior preached the sermon.
The last time that I saw Dr. Martin Luther King jr. alive was during a large peace demonstration in Washington in protest against the war in Vietnam in 1968. I sat as usually up front with my tape recorder. Dr. King went directly to me and asked, “Harcourt, how is it going with your study?”
What kind of person was Martin Luther King?
For me his personal life was in some ways just as impressive as his public life. Dr. King was someone who had a real interest in individuals and not only for the masses. He treated the garbage man in the same way as the mayor. Not only he, but also other members of his staff, came out for the rights for people in situations even where blacks thereby might be disadvantaged. An example of this was a strike of the white fire men in Atlanta. They had all been wrongfully dismissed and black men had been hired in their places.
His personality in a nutshell
One day I was asked by Ms King to come to her house to repair their personal tape recorder. It proved be an old and rather heavy thing, which they used to record and play personal things. Their house was on the edge of one of the black slums. Dr. King chose to live there because, as he said: “I want be reminded each day for whom I work.” Dr. King chose to live only on his salary as assistant minister in his father’s church. He gave away everything that he earned from his books and speeches to the Civil Rights Movement. As a head of his organization, S.C.L.C. he got one dollar as symbolic salary. Just like other middle class families they worried about meeting ends with their money. The living room was somewhat bare. There was a small statue of Gandhi on the table and a very large painting of a woman for a mirror. On the one side she was black and other side she was white. The bed room was completely at the rear. This was for security reasons, because on the veranda of their house in Montgomery a bomb had exploded. There was no burglar alarm. The children simply went and opened the front door. In a large cupboard were awards which Dr. King had received over course of years. Only the Nobel Prize medal was in the living room.
We got the tape recorder from the bed room and brought it to the living room. It took rather some time to get the tape recorder to work well. As I work on the machine I had a good conversation with Ms King. She was rather involved in the peace movement. I got the impression that she felt a bit lonely. In the shade of her man she sought her own recognition and that was understandable.
It got late and she said, “Won’t you stay for dinner?” I said that I didn’t want to put her out. She said, ”That’s no problem. Martin is always asking people to come unexpectedly for dinner, so we always have extra food in house.” I said, “Well in that case, I Would really love to stay for dinner!” We ate in the kitchen. Dr King came late as usual. I said, “Dr. King I really don’t feel worthy enough to sit at the same table with you.” He replied, “Now Harcourt you make it necessary for me to make a long sermon about how all people are equal.” What more can one say to put someone at ease.
Dr. King had a good feeling for humor. In Chicago there was a young woman who worked as volunteer in the office. She was quite capable but very impertinent. One day she called the hotel room where Dr. King and others worked. She asked for Dr. King. The voice on the phone answered. “You are speaking to him.” She answered: “Go way, Bernard, (one of his closest employees) I want to speak with Dr. King, Now!” The voice answered, “This is Dr. King.” She answered, “I know that you are Bernard, because I recognize your voice. You sound like a black assed country nigger.” With that the voice replied. “Little girl, do you know with whom you are speaking?” Then she realized that this really was Dr. King and not Bernard.
The next day in the staff meeting Dr. King began with message that he was going to take a course in rhetoric. Rev. Abernathy asked, “Why on earth would you want to do that?” Dr. King replied, “Now, I just heard from a very reliable source that my voice sounds just like a black assed county nigger.”
Of all descriptions of Dr. King which I know, the most impressive for me was that of a young white woman who came as volunteer to the campaign in the south. She said, “From all the people I have ever known, Dr. King comes the closest to what I believe Jesus was like.” I can only say, “Amen.”
In the church of his father, Martin Luther King senior, he was “junior”, an assistant preacher in his fathers church. Even if people came great distances to listen to him, in this congregation Martin Luther King senior was more important. “Daddy King” was The minister. His authority was as such that if there was a riot in the streets of Atlanta, the mayor would ask Daddy King and not his son to come and restore order. Dr. King jr. was the third King in the line of preachers in Ebenezer Baptist Church, one of the most important churches for the richer blacks in the largest city in the south of the U.S., Atlanta, Georgia. Even before Segregation was officially abolished in 1994, one year before I came to Atlanta, Ebenezer had a white assistant minister.
Martin Luther King has been especially praised for his speech talent. “I have Dream” is now probably the world’s most known speech in the history of the U.S.
Dr. King was like Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote plays in complicated poetry. But at the same time he used slanted jokes in his plays to keep the workers satisfied. So it was with Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and speeches. Usually he had a short introduction in which he mentioned the themes. In his sermons there were generally three. In each part he illustrated these with three examples: The first would be at a very high intellectual level, frequently with very difficult words, then one at a middle level and finally one which an illiterate could understand. This was frequently interspersed with humor, sometimes from his personal experiences. Then there was a summary and conclusion. He finished with a sort pep talk coda which was meant to inspire people to undertake action.
He wove simple topics to a symphony. For example the theme “I have a dream” had been taken over from high school girl in a hamlet in the south.
Repeating a phrase is typical of the Negro sermons, just like the use of rich metaphorical language.
Dr. King received his doctor’s degree from one of the best universities, Boston University. Boston is the intellectual and cultural centre of America. Here he had access to information which was not or hardly available for blacks in the south. Moreover he learned be able analyze well. But he was never satisfied with only analyses. “We don’t want to get bogged down in the paralysis or analysis.” “An essay is to inform, a sermon is to persuade,” he told me.
To be a good sermon it has to have both social and personal implications. History has preserved the social side in its memory. The personal side is also important, but then you must read his sermons among others in the collection Strength to Love.
In this way it was possible for him to combine the best of the two traditions. Moreover he had a talent for phrasing of the heart of the matter in very short and powerful sentences in such a manner that reporters could not twist his message to meet their own aims. For instance “I cannot approve throwing Molotov cocktail’s, but at the same time I can not approve still greater violence that gave reason for the frustration that led to such acts.
Dr. King saw himself as a moral leader and not as a political leader. A moral leader is like a thermostat. A political leader is too often only a thermometer. King never came out for a political party or candidate.
He did not like hero worship. He prohibited persons from hanging photograph of him in his office. One of my tasks was to sort his mail. Frequently we got requests from “artists” to use his picture to embellish various articles. In return we would receive a percentage of the profits to be used by him or the organization. This was always consequently refused.
The Southern Christian Leadership conference evolved out of the Montgomery Improvement Organization which began with the bus boycott. There was a governing board of plus about 100 people, mainly important Black clergymen in the U.S., mostly from the South. In contrast to a number of other Civil Rights organizations personal membership was not possible. There were branches, usually local church and black Civil Rights organizations.
There was a small paid staff and consultants. There was also the Field Staff that worked in a number of locations. They were mainly volunteers who received only their costs or sometimes a subsistence loan. The size of the Field Staff depended on the donations which came in. In the period that I was there this approximately seventy people. Although the Executive Staff made the final decisions, nevertheless everyone participated in the organization. The whole organization came together two times a year. The day always started and finished with singing and prayer.
The most important departments were: the Field Staff; the Adult Education Program, which taught adults to read and write and at the same time this used to help the participants to stand up for their rights at the local level; the Citizen Education Program, which promoted political education and organization; the Dialogue Program, a program to promote inter-racial dialogue.;
The Bread Basket Program. This program to promote Black economic progress began in the South, later became the most important program in the urban North was, mainly by the commitment of Rev. Jessie Jackson.
What was very remarkable is that Dr. King brought a very broad scale of people to work together in the organization whose personalities were of such a nature that they normally would not have cooperated with each other.
Here comes this dreamer. Come, now let us kill him… and we will see, what becomes of his dreams! Genesis 37:19-21 (RSV)
This was the text Dr. Abernathy used for King’s funeral service.
I am frequently asked, “Who is the successor of Martin Luther King?” and “What has become of his movement?”
There are at least three way keep the ideas alive of someone.
One is by an organization. With Jesus this is the catholic approach, with King SCLC. The problem is that an organization can become corrupt and even do the opposite of what the person whose name they profess to use would do. The Inquisition is an example.
A Second is by scripture. This is the Protestant approach. The problem with this is the letter kills. Christian and Moslem Fundamentalists have done abominably things in the name of their founders. Ms King did everything possible to try to collect her husband’s writings and make them wider known. Who knows, perhaps in the future someone could be more inspired by his books, recordings and films than through his organization. A third way is by the spirit. This is the approach of the third stream in Christianity, which was usually outside the established religious institutions and frequently severely persecuted. This is the approach of the Mennonites and Quakers. The Spirit is like the wind which blows where it wants. This is the spirit of the nonviolence of King which continues to live on in part of peace, women and environment movements. It keeps on moving. One cannot institutionalize it.
Dr. King was an adherent of the school of philosophy of Personalism, which was in dominant in Boston University. Briefly: Personality is the highest value in the universe. Personalism in strict sense is the conception that the person is the highest that there is and in which all reality, value and truth come together.
A facet of this philosophy is the inclination of people to personify ideas. Therefore people talk about Buddhism and not the eightfold path to reality or Marxism and not the state ownership of the means of production. Gandhi was seen as the symbol of the non-violent movement in India. In America people considered King as the personification of the non-violent movement for the civil rights. Martin Luther King did not approve of this, but he accepted this human shortcoming.
Personalism was also appropriate to his own theology.
He considered himself as a liberal. He had been influenced by the “Social Gospel” of the American theologian Walter Rauchenbush (1861-1918), who at the beginning of the 20th Century emphasized the social implications of the gospel. This movement had been criticized as being too optimistic by later theologians. After the Second World War Neo Orthodoxy especially that of Karl Barth was more in vogue. Although Dr. King accepted a lot of the insights of the criticism of these theologians, he did not become an adherent of this school of thought.
I remember that in the time that I worked with his organization Time magazine came out with a completely black cover with in large red letters, “GOD IS DEAD?” The main article in this authoritative American magazine was devoted to the so called “God is Dead” theologians who considered the concept of a personal God as being meaningless. Only the narratives and parables in the Bible are able influence people. For King the answer to this question was reverberating NO! God is personal. To say God is personal is not to make him an object among other objects or to attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality: it is to take the finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm his perfectly existence in him… So in the truest sense of the word, God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: this God both evokes and answers people’s prayers. From a revision of chapter 6 of Martin Luther King’s Strive Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1958) from an article with the title “How my mind has Changed” in the magazine Christian Century 77.13 April 1960:439-41)
“Is the Universe Friendly?”, is the title of one of his sermons. For King the answer was certainly “YES!” He said, “God knows everyone just like someone who knows every page of a book.”
I went one time with him and his family to the amusement park. His children had gotten a free ride on the roller coaster. Of course their father had to go along. On the way to the roller coaster Dr. King said, “Now Harcourt there is something which you must know.” I said, “What is that?” He answered very seriously, “This is a very frightening ride!”
Fear is a strange thing. But at the same time it is a key to violence. What is frightening to one person is not necessarily frightening to another. Bishop Pike, was at the time the most famous Anglican clergyman. He went to Selma for a protest march, right after “Bloody Sunday”. He said that he had a lot of apprehension. As they went from the church, Dr. King said that after the march they would have lunch at the home of one of the members of the local church. He found it almost unbelievable that someone could talk very calmly about food, whereas at that moment he could only think about what the chances were that he would survive the demonstration.
In his book Strength to Love, in the sermon “Antidote for fear” he used a text from I Johannes 4.18 In love there is no fear, but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
Love overcomes fear.
“A positive religious faith does not offer an illusion that we shall be exempt from pain and suffering, nor does it imbue us with the idea that life is a dream of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Rather, it instills us with the inner equilibrium needed to face strains, burdens and fears that inevitably come, and assures us that the universe is trustworthy and that God is concerned.”
Love is therefore the key to nonviolence. Much of the most awful acts of violence are done as a result of apprehension, and not from hatred. The vicious circle of violence is an accumulation of violence that invokes fear that in turn evokes still more violence with the intention of frightening the other away. Sometimes this works but it does nothing to combat the original causes.
Real love can break through the vicious circle. If menace of violence does not arouse fear then the attacker becomes confused. King believed that love could work, not only at the personal level, also at the social level.
The power of nonviolence
Dr. King’s nonviolence was characterized by the word “love” and not just refusing to use violence by being obedient to an unconditional commandment. Not only he, but almost everyone around him radiated respect and understanding for people, as well as concern for their wellbeing and willingness to forgive. Not only that they had joy and the trust that God took care of them. Especially impressive was the deep conviction that in spite of all the suffering and hardships, eventually justice would prevail. “We shall overcome.”
King said that the non-violent movement used the method of Gandhi and the spirit of Christ. “Nonviolent resistance has emerged as the technique or the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal. In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method. Strive Toward Freedom, p. 85
I will waste few words concerning the question: “Who assassinated Dr. King?” As one of his employees put it, “The question is not WHO killed him, but WHAT killed him.”
With regard to the more important question, I only want to say the first phase of the Movement, the decisive battle in the fight against legal Segregation had already been won. Only the mopping up remained. Just like the second phase of the struggle, that of gaining in practices voting rights for blacks. So as Dr. King said, both these had not cost the nation very much money. But the third and last phase of his Movement, the struggle for economic rights for all poor people, not just blacks, that however, would cost a lot. As long as people talk only about the rights of their own group this is less threatening to the established order. But when people organize all for all that is severe offence against the primary rule of staying in power, that of divide and conquer.
In the Poor Peoples Campaign, blacks, poor whites, Indians, and other minority group would come to Washington to camp on the grounds of the government buildings. That was a greater threat than Dr. King’s criticism of the war in Vietnam.
One day the truth will surface. But until then I am not so concerned. I would rather commit my time to promoting the Movement.
However, I want say some words concerning the theological meaning of his death. Martin Luther King believed in life after death. So as he it put it in such a beautiful way, “Death is not a one-way street. It is just a bend in the road that we can’t see through.” He believed also that undeserved suffering was redemptive. This was a conviction that prevailed in the Movement that however strong an evil might seem, God’s power was even greater.
In Dr. King’s last speech, the day before his death, he said in reply to the deathly threats which descended on him, I am not fearing anyone. I only want to do God’s will.”
I don’t know if he would have reached more people if he had not been assassinated.
I believe in the Apostolic Succession. Not in the sense that the Pope is the direct successor of St. Peter through a secession of apostles as the head of the church, but rather in the sense of that there is a chain of martyrs from St. Stephen, whose death led to the conversion of St. Paul. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
This I know from my own experiences. Through the death of Rev. Reeb, I have found new life in this chain of martyrs. For this reason I believe in the Resurrection. A crucifixion has taken place. We need people for a social resurrection.
They killed the dreamer, but not the Dream. I want finish with this passage from the poem that Martin Luther King cited frequently
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, ‑
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
The Present Crisis, James Russel Lowell.
Much of this article appeared originally in Dutch in the book
Gidsen en Getuigen
op de pelgrimage naar vrede
Een bundel opstellen ter gelegenheid van het afscheid van Harry Zeldenrust als studiesecretaris van Kerk en Vrede
Paul van Dijk
Herman Noordegraaf en
ISBN 90 5263 186 7
Rev. Harcourt “Harky” Klinefelter (1938), Mennonite minister, adult educator, non-violent trainer, Chairman of the foundation the Netherlands Supports the Balkans Peace Team, employed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as Assistant Director of Public Relations 1965-1968.