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Baptist Leader Reflects on King’s Visit to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 19, 1961, having been invited by Henlee Barnette and several other professors to deliver the prestigious Julius Brown Gay lectures.

King’s SBTS visit and lecture came near the center point of his involvement in the civil rights movement and took place between two significant initiatives.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus six years prior to his lecture, leading to a bus boycott that thrust King into a leadership role of the burgeoning movement.

“Sit-ins” to challenge segregated diners emerged in February 1960, leading to “wade-ins” at segregated pools and “pray-ins” at whites-only churches.

“Freedom Rides” began in May 1961, testing the effectiveness of a Supreme Court ruling declaring that segregation of interstate travel was illegal.

King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech were still a couple of years down the road, and “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma wouldn’t take place for another four years.

He would be assassinated on April 4, 1968, seven years after his SBTS lecture.

Emmanuel McCall – a Baptist minister who has pastored churches, served as a seminary professor and held leadership positions in national and international Baptist organizations – was a second-year SBTS student during King’s visit.

I spoke with him earlier this week about his experience.

“We were told that there would be a crowd,” McCall remembers. When he arrived “the chapel was packed” – both the main floor and the balcony were filled with more than 1,400 in attendance.

“That did not include the overflow,” he added, an adjacent auditorium in the music school in which the speech was played over loudspeakers.

“At that time, I was the only African American student enrolled at the seminary,” McCall shared. “There were a number of other dark-skinned students from the islands, from Africa” who were enrolled, he clarified, but “African American students were not granted the privileges that the international students had … who came as a product of the missionaries and that gave them a bit of leverage.”

King’s speech was titled, “The Church and the Frontier of Racial Tension,” and focused on the period of transition facing the world – moving from an era of imperialism, colonialism and oppression into a period of freedom and human dignity, which had created a sense of crisis in which the church could and should play a constructive role.

He “was very careful to indicate that it is not a rebellion that he was leading,” McCall remembered. “It was a struggle to make the gospel applicable to everybody, the whole human race.”

The most memorable and resounding statement King made, he said, “was that the movement that he was directing and the efforts of the civil rights movement was not about interracial marriage.”

This was used frequently as a “smoke-screen” by those opposed to King and the civil rights movement, McCall explained.

He recalled King stating, “We are not trying to be your brother-in-laws, we are trying to be your brothers.”

“He did not … do a lot of blaming,” McCall recalled. “He didn’t, for example, get on the matter of slavery and hang there. He simply talked about the challenges of the gospel for right now and how we needed to respond to it.”

King focused on “trying to clarify what the civil rights movement was about, and to dispel some of the myths of what it was not about” and he received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his lecture, McCall shared.

SBTS president Duke McCall was hesitant to be involved with King’s visit, Emmanuel McCall told me, because he saw the visit as “a perilous thing for the school” in terms of losing both funding and goodwill from some seminary supporters.

He sat in the back at the service, didn’t appear on the platform or attend a small, private luncheon held for King by SBTS professors.

“What Duke said he was defending did prove true,” Emmanuel McCall noted, as between $250,000 and $300,000 in funding were withdrawn due to King’s appearance.

King was asked to speak to an ethics class that afternoon, but the gathering became an open forum, McCall explained, as the event had to be moved from a regular classroom, to a large auditorium-style classroom and eventually back to the chapel to accommodate the roughly 500 students in attendance.

McCall noted that he knew King’s younger brother, A.D., who was also a Baptist pastor, and their parents better than he knew King. Yet, he had several opportunities to meet and visit with him following the SBTS visit.

When I asked what impressed him most about King, McCall told me, “[I was] awed at his ability to call up theologians, philosophers and to weave it into the context of the civil rights movement, and to do this at will.”

King’s father spoke often “of his own sense of Martin’s finality,” McCall added. “That the death threats were there, that he wasn’t sure how he could live, and how he and … Martin … came to grips with that part of life as reality.”

McCall was an interviewee in EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,” looking at racism inside and outside the church, and sharing how Baptists are working together in proactive ways to break down the racial and ethnic walls of division and to be faithful to the Bible’s moral vision. He was named EthicsDaily.com’s Baptist of the Year in 2009.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

Editor’s note: King’s Julius Brown Gay lecture is available via text manuscript and audio recording, and his lecture to the ethics class is available via audio recording. An EthicsDaily.com video interview of Norma Baker Gabhart reflecting on her recollections of King’s SBTS visit can be viewed here. A free PDF resource sheet to aid congregations in planning MLK Day observances and in reflecting on his life and legacy is available here.