Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=74931
Story Retrieval Date: 5/21/2013 7:53:59 AM CST
Courtesy of Gurdon Brewster
WASHINGTON – The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s courageous leadership in the civil rights movement of the 1960s will be forever etched into the pages of American history.
But even before King led the historic Montgomery bus boycott and other nonviolent protests, another King was pounding the pulpit and the pavement for social justice – his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., known as Daddy King to his family, friends and congregants.
The Rev. Gurdon Brewster has decided to make Daddy King’s story better known.
Brewster’s memoir, “No Turning Back: My Summer with Daddy King,” recounts a summer in 1961 that he spent with Martin Luther King Sr., and his wife, Alberta, in Atlanta. The book offers an intimate look at the King family in that turbulent time and reveals the inner conflicts of Brewster -- a white Episcopalian from the North immersed in the black struggle for freedom and equality.
The memoir, published by Orbis Books late last year, illustrates the pivotal role of the senior King in the nonviolent fight for racial equality, while also raising questions of faith and social class within the young narrator.
“People don’t know much about Daddy King,” Brewster said in a phone interview. “But Dr. King stood on the shoulders of Daddy King, who stood on the shoulders of Rev. A.D. Williams. There’s a long legacy of civil rights work there.”
In 1961, Brewster was a 24-year-old seminary student in New York who volunteered to participate in a program that sent white Episcopalians into black churches in the South for the summer. He requested Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Daddy King, a stocky preacher with a booming voice, served as the primary pastor. Brewster was welcomed into the King household to live when no other family in the congregation offered to take him.
Over plates of grits and bacon in the mornings, Brewster learned the story of Daddy King’s hard-fought journey, from sharecropper’s son to big city pastor.
“Daddy King and M.L. shared a very similar faith in Christ,” Brewster said “but they expressed it differently because of where they came from.”
While Dr. King grew up middle-class in Atlanta, Brewster said, Daddy King was reared in rural Stockbridge, Ga. His father plowed the fields on a white man’s farm; his mother scrubbed floors for a living. Though his father wanted him to farm, Daddy King moved to Atlanta to go to school. He was so far behind that he had to attend the fifth grade when he was 20 years old.
After scrapping his way through the intellectual rigors of Morehouse College, he became pastor of Ebenezer in 1931. In 1935, about 20 years before his son led the Montgomery bus boycott, the senior King led a march on City Hall for improved black rights. He soon got hate mail for his efforts.
“People think that the civil rights movement started with Rosa Parks” in 1955, Brewster said, “but Daddy King was leading marches in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Brewster’s book depicts him learning of Daddy King’s struggle and reflecting on his own respective place of social privilege. He also found out first-hand how difficult Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of nonviolence was to put into practice.
“To love your enemy like Dr. King preached is a huge piece faith,” Brewster said. “It’s much easier to just go buy a gun.”
Dr. King also schooled Brewster on the role of the church in American society. According to Brewster’s account of their conversations, Dr. King felt that churches of all races and denominations should do more to promote social justice.
“What Dr. King did,” Brewster said, “was take Daddy King’s prophetic vision and thrust it into the public arena.”
After his summer with the Kings, Brewster went on to serve as chaplain for Cornell University in New York for 35 years. In 1979, he invited Daddy King to visit Cornell and speak to the students.
Daddy King was then the survivor of his two sons and wife. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968; his other son, A.D., drowned in 1969.
His wife, Alberta, was killed in 1974 when a gunman opened fire at church.
In his sermon to the Cornell students in 1979, Daddy discussed his losses and expressed an unwavering gratitude and faith in God.
Daddy King died five years later of a heart attack. He was 84.
Brewster continues to serve as an Episcopal priest, works as a sculptor and lives in Newfield, New York.
Brewster contends that both men would still be fighting for social justice if they were alive today. Though much progress has been made, Brewster said, there is still much more that churches could be doing. Gay rights, and the war in Iraq, are two controversial issues that churches struggle to address, Brewster said.
“It’s a strange time we live in,” Brewster said. “There’s a lot of milk toast Christianity, soft on issues of justice.”
“And that’s a shame because at the very heart of Christianity is a great tradition of justice and fairness.”