As We Remember Dr. King…

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man on so many levels. But he was first a pastor/preacher, erudite and eloquent, persuasive and passionate. He could also be controversial in the pulpit.

ap_mlk_memphis_mountain_kb_130403_wmainHad he lived, he would have recently celebrated his 90th birthday.  I wonder what he would think about our national journey since the day his powerful voice was so violently silenced?

A year to the day before his death in Memphis, Dr. King preached Riverside Church in Manhattan. The church, built against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s, was founded by Harry Emerson Fosdick and John D. Rockefeller Jr., a liberal preacher with a generous benefactor. Mr. Rockefeller initially donated more than $10.5 million, and his contribution grew to more than $32 million by 1959. It was a case of petro-dollars funding Protestant liberalism.

As Dr. King spoke to a crowd of nearly 4,000 on April 4, 1967, he said that as a religious leader he wanted to “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high ground of a firm dissent.”

His subject was not Civil Rights – it was the Vietnam War.

Though careful to talk about America as his “beloved nation,” and not hesitant to address the crowd as “my fellow Americans,” he said that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” was “my own government.”

At that time, polls indicated that nearly 75% of Americans supported the war.

Dr. King faced his own media firestorm in the immediate aftermath of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post described it as “unsupported fantasy,” and the New York Times called it “Dr. King’s Error.” U.S. News and World Report went even further, suggesting that King was “lining up with Hanoi,” and President Johnson angrily speculated that King had “thrown in with the Commies.”

Even legendary baseball player/hero Jackie Robinson came out against the speech and the NAACP adopted a resolution warning that King’s effort to connect the anti-war movement with civil rights was a “serious tactical mistake.”

Later that year, the annual Gallup Poll of the “Ten Most Popular Americans,” would not include the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—for the first time in more than a decade.

One long and very difficult year after his Riverside remarks, Dr. King was in Memphis. The night before his death, he was scheduled to speak at Mason Temple. There were storm and tornado warnings, and he was weary from travel, so he asked Rev. Ralph Abernathy to go in his place. When Abernathy got to the church, he saw thousands who had braved violent weather to hear King, so he called back to the Lorraine Motel and encouraged his friend to come over. King did go over, and he gave what was to be his last sermon.

During his 20-minute extemporaneous address that evening, he asked: “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” He then added a word of encouragement to the great number of preachers in the crowd: “I want to commend the preachers…and I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.” As he warmed to the crowd and his message he said: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words.”

He called for the development of what he referred to as “a kind of dangerous unselfishness” and segued to a rhetorical comfort zone, the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. He used the famous story as the basis for his admonition: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with greater determination…we have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Then he waxed personal, describing a previous assassination attempt by “a demented black woman” ten years before and how the blade came so close to his aorta that one sneeze would have ended his life. This was a familiar King story, one that he told many times with the refrain “If I had sneezed…” being repeated again and again for effect. At this point, other preachers on the platform that night became unsettled because this story was usually one placed earlier in a speech. The concern was that Dr. King might “miss his landing” and not end on a high note.

There is an old formula in the African-American tradition of preaching: “Start low, go slow. Rise higher, catch fire. Retire.” The concern was that King was not quite catching fire. Then, however, came those final moments as he talked about being to the mountain top and seeing the “promised land,” and the now famous and passionate ending: “So, I’m happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

As a preacher, King was Sunday-centric, always with an eye on the next sermon. So the next afternoon, Thursday, April 4, 1968, he placed a call from room 306 of the Lorraine Motel back to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and gave his secretary the title for his upcoming Palm Sunday sermon: Why America May Go to Hell.”

He never had the chance to preach that one. A few hours later his voice was silenced in a brief and deadly explosion of violence.

Dr. King is remembered more than 50 years later for his words and deeds. He is honored–-appropriately so—as a hero. It is, though, an interesting question: “What would Dr. King say today—and how would he be received?”

[For books by David R. Stokes, visit: www.davidrstokes.com]

Maybe What Readers Want is Continuity…

[This blog written for VENTURE GALLERIES — please check out that great site! — DRS]

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Having spent years writing primarily non-fiction—history articles, a narrative nonfiction book, some current events and politics—developing my novel, Camelot’s Cousin, was a learning experience. But one surprise came after the book was published.

I began to hear this from readers: “So, David, when do we get to read the next story in your series?”

Next story? Series? Such a thing had never been even a blip on my writing radar until people starting reading Camelot’s Cousin. My plan was to move on to one of about a dozen new nonfiction projects, such as my recently book, Firebrand. I had always seen my books and stories as “stand alone” creations. One stop. One shot. File the material in a closet. Move on.

Then it happened—minor clamor for the next edition. At first, I resisted it. I have too many other things I want to write. The novel was a somewhat of a lark. I wanted to see if I could do it.

Then one night, when my wife and I were catching up on one of our favorite television shows, watching a few episodes recorded on our DVR—it hit me. When it comes to fiction, people enjoy continuity, and they want to know what happens next. This revelation came to me after I heard myself say, “Wow, I can’t wait for the next episode.” It was one of those head-slapping, should-have-had-a-V-8 moments.

So I began to envision a new story involving the cast of characters from Camelot’s Cousin. I am several chapters into it, and I am hooked. I still want to write that other stuff, but I can now see about four or five stories built around my lead character, Templeton Davis, the popular and successful host of a nationally broadcast radio talk show.

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Now, some reading this blog—especially my author colleagues—will likely see my teachable moment as something all too obvious. They might be tempted to think, “Sure, David, we get it. You saw the truck and flagged it down. And then you made a great discovery—they have these vehicles that drive around selling ice cream. You can buy it right in front of your house. Dude—do you live under a rock?”

Edward R. Murrow once said, “The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.” I think all of us are like that to a point. It was just a couple of years ago that one of my daughters—32 years old at the time—figured out that the insignia on a New York Yankee baseball cap was actually the letters, “NY.” But then, I only recently noticed that the tune behind the song teaching children their “ABC’s” is the same as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I don’t know how many books I’ll produce in the Templeton Davis series, but it will be fun watching the characters grow. Hopefully they’ll learn obvious things much quicker than the man with the computer behind the curtain.