Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Martin Luther King, Sr.

Martin Luther King, Sr. isn't entirely forgotten of course. He is remembered for his son. But no one thinks much about the father, who is an interesting guy in his own right. More importantly, King Sr. can help us understand an entire generation of African-American preachers who laid a great deal of the groundwork that allowed the civil rights movement to explode in the 1950s.

Born in 1899 in Stockbridge, Georgia, like many people of his time and race, he was born to poor sharecroppers. The failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow policies forced millions of African-Americans into these scenarios of systemic poverty, political and economic disfranchisement, and violence of all forms. King became interested in fighting for the rights of his people and saw the ministry as a prime way to affect change, as did many other young black men of his generation.

King could not read until his late teens, but that didn't stop him. At the age of 15, he started preaching in his home area of Georgia and found himself successful. An ambitious man, King learned to read and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, beginning in 1926. This was not easy for him--he failed many courses and struggled overall. Why? Not because he was stupid; rather like so many people of his generation, King didn't have any educational advantages at all. Whites claimed that blacks were inferior and lazy. But of course the real problem was racism and the denial of opportunities throughout your life. Soon after his graduation, in 1931, he became the minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. "Sweet Auburn" was the center of African-American life in Atlanta. It was home to shops, large homes, and Atlanta's version of the vibrant African-American communities that developed across the South in response to Jim Crow laws and violence against them.

Interestingly, Martin Luther King was originally named Michael King. He changed it to Martin in 1934 as a way to show his commitment to the church.

King Sr. played a pretty big role in developing the civil rights movement in Georgia, serving as head of the state NAACP and worked to end Jim Crow laws there. Like many black men of his generation, King was a committed Republican for a very long time. Though many blacks began moving toward the Democratic Party during the New Deal, many others, especially in the South, rightfully connected that party with white supremacy and thus chose the Republicans. Of course, most of them couldn't vote so it didn't matter much. King did not switch his affiliation until 1960 when the Kennedy brothers worked to have King freed after an arrest in Georgia that placed his life in tremendous danger. After his conversion, he played an important role in state politics and did a great service to Jimmy Carter in supporting his presidential nomination in 1976. Many liberals in the party thought Carter was too conservative but King pointed out how much Carter did to end segregation in Georgia and swayed enough votes to give him the nomination. During the civil rights movement proper, King Sr. supported his son, though he was fearful of what might (and of course did) happen to him. He wasn't at the forefront of the movement, much like many preachers of his generation who came of age in the bad days before World War II when any perceived dissent against segregation was met with extreme violence. But he was always there for his son, often filling in for him at Ebenezer when King Jr. had work to do in other places.

Martin Luther King, Sr. was not a particularly exceptional man, except for who his oldest son was. He was certainly a leader in the local black Atlanta community, and Georgia in general, and is a man who deserves more attention than he has received. But really, looking at King is really a way to look at thousands of exceptional African-American men who served as preachers across the South during the long Jim Crow era and who put their prestige and often their lives on the line to protect their churchgoers and community from the onslaught of white violence, be it physical, sexual, or economic.