Who remembers when Michelle Obama said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback,”? That’s the way I felt about the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. It took me a while to come around.
I was in 2nd grade when Dr. King was assassinated so I have no recall of his work except for what I’ve seen on TV. I went to some good schools and they never made it a point to offer any deep study on Dr. King. Thanks to my 11th grade social studies teacher Addie Cheeks, I at least was required to read Alex Haley’s ‘Malcolm X’ which served as a launch point for self-study on black nationalism and the civil rights movement.
I grew up at Calvary Baptist Church and Rev. J. Pius Barbour was the first preacher I ever saw in a pulpit giving a sermon. I later learned he was Dr. King’s mentor when King studied at Crozer Seminary but that was about the extent of what I knew about the King-Barbour relationship and the Crozer Seminary.
Fast forward to the King Holiday, I became more curious about Dr. King as a result of a lyric in Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ song (which I consider the best remix in the history of remixes).
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
For years I represented that passage. With a steady diet of The Dream speech on constant rotation year after year, I still wasn’t getting what I figured I should be getting from this Dr. King phenomenon. Maybe it was intentionally being made to become an illusion right before my eyes.
Over the years I’ve watch more footage, learned more history, and read a few more of his speeches to gain a marginally better appreciation for the man.
Then came Christmas Day 2014 with the release of the movie ‘Selma.’ The history lesson was good but still I was seeing Dr. King as a meek and mild man on a mission taking a lot of abuse in the name of nonviolence. There’s got to be more to him than this.
Also in 2014, Tavis Smiley started to right the path of a relevant, meaningful, and comprehensive study on Dr. King with his book ‘Death of a King.’ In it, he gave great detail of the day-to-day movements of Dr. King in the last year of his life – April 1967 to April 1968 – while providing important insights into the life and work of Dr. King leading up to that final year. In 2015, Dr. Cornel West curated an awesome collection of Dr. King’s lectures, writings, speeches and interviews in his book ‘The Radical King.’ Those two books gave me the ammunition I needed to appreciate Dr. King well beyond the guy with a dream getting his head bashed in on the streets and shot dead on a balcony while helping to change legislation for civil rights, equal rights, voting rights, and housing rights.
When I thought Smiley’s and West’s books were enough, then comes a new book in 2018, ‘The Seminarian – Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age’ by Patrick Parr.
Patrick Parr came to Chester last week to do a book signing and short lecture. As with most author lectures, it was boring. Author’s are usually great at writing books but not nearly as gifted when it comes to talking about their books and Mr. Parr was no exception. When you think the author will rile you up to buy his book, I normally leave author lectures wondering why I came.
But Parr’s lecture did provide some interesting insight on why it is important to know about Dr. King’s time at Chester’s Crozer Seminary if you expect to know how Dr. King came to be the man he came to be.
Parr shared that he didn’t intend to write about Dr. King but became convinced that his next book would be a biography of some important person during their early years. He was surprised to learn that there was nothing written about young Dr. King in his early 20s and as he gathered research he found plenty of material from Dr. King’s days at Crozer Seminary that would make a good book.
Not only does the reader get a never before peek into the life of Dr. King as a student, Parr brings us important Chester history which has become just as much an illusion over the years as Dr. King’s true legacy.
The book is absolutely fascinating especially if read by Chester people familiar with the places described in the book that you find Dr. King traveling to; churches he preaches in; buses he takes to the train station to head into Philly; and even bars he may have stopped in during his time in Chester. One of the sexy hooks of the book is Parr finding Dr. King’s white girlfriend at Crozer and getting her impressions of her old boyfriend. This stuff has never been documented anywhere.
I read ‘The Seminarian’ after I wrote the December issue of Chester Matters on religion where I had an article sharing how disappointed I was with Calvary Baptist Church for not being a shrine for Dr. Martin Luther King and serving as a world center for social justice. To my surprise, Mr. Parr says almost the exact same thing about the Old Main building of the Crozer Seminary which is sadly falling apart due to no efforts to maintain or restore the building.
Today, Chester is considered the armpit of Delaware County when it should be the world headquarters for everything Martin Luther King. With the legacy of one of the world’s greatest men having lived, studied, and gained his preaching chops in Chester, all signs should point to Chester, PA as one of America’s top tourist destinations.
Page 225 of ‘The Seminarian’ has a passage that sums up my early thoughts of Dr. King and vindicates why I wasn’t a Dr. King fan for so long.
It comes from Kenneth ‘Snuffy’ Smith, one of Dr. King’s advisors while at Crozer, as he offers his comments in a 1986 lecture on the King Holiday.
Will the holiday be viewed as symbolic of the fact that King represented the brightest and the best of the American tradition of dissent in this struggle for social justice and peace, thus encouraging us to continue the struggle? Or will it assume simply a symbolic significance transcending its actual effect, thus turning King into just another irrelevant plastic hero, like Superman, perhaps to be sold at Christmas time, along with Rambo and Rocky…
It is true that the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was a rhetorical miracle, but it was not substantive. Nevertheless, this is the King who will be eulogized, because we (as a nation) have frozen Martin’s feet to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
In my opinion, if anyone wants to do a real study of Dr. King, here’s how I suggest you start. In the following order, read ‘The Seminarian’ followed by ‘The Radical King’ and end with ‘Death of a King.’ Anything you pick up after that will be great filler.