I love to tell the story, the story of the friend of mine, the friend of yours, the leader of our nation in many, many ways, and a prophetic guide, hopefully, for our future. Martin Luther King was from Atlanta, and Atlanta even then was a special place, for there were probably more black PhDs in Atlanta and the historically black colleges and universities than maybe anywhere in the world. There were almost as many PhDs in Atlanta, as in his childhood, in Emory and Georgia Tech. And it was a university town in many ways. Oglethorpe. He grew up in an environment where his father walked into town barefooted from Stockbridge. He had his shoes, but he tied the strings together and put ’em over his shoulder because he didn’t want to wear his shoes out. He wanted to save them for church. The first church to which he attended ended up being the church that he ended up pastoring and marrying the preacher’s daughter. And it was his intention from the beginning.

Somehow he went to Europe and learned of Martin Luther. His name was Michael Luther, and he changed his name and sent word back that Martin Luther King should change his name too. And so many of his friends at Morehouse College still call him Mike and knew him as Michael Luther King. But I think the die of prophecy was cast. And there was no way he could escape it. He tried. He wanted to be a pastor, but he didn’t want to, well, he didn’t know what kind of pastor he wanted to be. And in choosing his seminary and his church, he chose a liberal Protestant perspective that allowed him to grow in any direction that he might choose to grow.

When it came time to select a church, he wanted to be out of Atlanta, and Atlanta was too political for him. And so he picked probably the most conservative town in the south at that time, Montgomery, Alabama. And Dexter Avenue Church was one of the most conservative churches in the Baptist community, at least. And he wanted to go there to finish his doctoral dissertation, which he was receiving from Boston University. And literally 10 days to two weeks after he mailed his dissertation in, Rosa Parks sat down on a bus. And there was a lot of going on around that, which he had tried to avoid. In fact, when they had a meeting to decide what to do about Rosa Parks, he was in the office running the mimeograph machine, printing hand bills.

So he really didn’t know what was going on in the meeting, and there became a little conflict. Between the Baptist and the Methodist, nothing unusual about that. And, the women, it’s usually the women who give us the leading voice, rose up and went to the head of the NAACP and said, “Why don’t we start a tradition and let’s let this young man back there running mimeograph machine, why don’t we make him the spokesman for this movement?” Well, at that time, it was a one-day movement. One day of not riding the bus because Rosa Parks had been thrown in jail for sitting in the front of the bus and not moving to the back. Well, Martin had almost no time. He received the announcement one hour ahead of the start of the meeting, and he had to pull together his thoughts.

He didn’t know about the plans of the women. He didn’t know about the conflict between the churches, but he rose to the occasion with less than one hour to prepare himself. He made one of the better speeches of his career. In fact, if you see in that speech that he gave in at Ralph Abernathy’s Church, you see, the many of the elements that occurred in his later speeches. And you realize that he came from a very good education, though he was not known as a preacher. I always found it interesting that he made a “C” in Public Speaking at Morehouse, and also a “C” in Public Speaking in seminary. So evidently the Voice of the Lord had not tuned him up yet. Or evidently, well, let’s let that alone. But being chosen leader was a heavy price to pay for a young man with a pregnant wife and just getting started.

It wasn’t easy. Not only was he arrested, but he was sued. And the little property that he had was confiscated by the state of Alabama, in the case that they filed with, against the New York Times, and named him a co-conspirator along with most of the other ministers. But people did not want to give up. And so after 380 days, there was a word from Washington. And it was proclaimed almost as a prophetic voice when one of the good sisters in the movement jumped up in the courtroom and shouted after she heard the news, “Great God Almighty done spoke from Washington!” And so you ended up having that connection between this 25-year-old pastor and the nation’s Supreme Court. And it meant that they won the bus boycott after 382 days, but that didn’t stop them from continuing.

And there was a bombing of his home. And fortunately, Coretta had just moved Yolanda back to the kitchen to give her her milk. She was newborn. He was arrested and then released. He wrote a book, and was signing that book in Harlem, when he was stabbed by a demented black woman. And he was so positive about his own life that he referred over and over again to the fact that his time was not up yet. But also about a letter that he received from a 12-year-old girl, who was a white girl from the middle west, who said to Dr. King that in the letter that she wrote, “I’m glad you didn’t sneeze”. And so in some strange way, the efforts of Montgomery put him on the national stage, and people were trying to figure out just who this young man was.

It may not be irony to you, but his own denomination didn’t like it. And he was actually expelled from a National Baptist Convention at a convention in Philadelphia for being too militant. Which started the split of the National Baptist Convention and the Progressive Baptist Convention that Gardner Taylor of New York began to lead. But nothing about his life was gentle and peaceful, but it was all courageous. Finally, after many of these incidents, his parents insisted that he come back to Atlanta where he would be safe. When he came back to Atlanta, he found the sit-in movement going on, and the students asked him to join a march to Rich’s Department Store, which he did, only to be snatched out of the line by the neighboring county police and put into solitary confinement in DeKalb County. And in the middle of the night, he was taken in a paddy wagon from Atlanta to the prison in southeast Georgia.

It was about a three hour ride, and there were no expressways then. And he found himself winding around up hills and round curves, and there was nobody in the paddy wagon, but him and a German Shepherd. And they were kind of counting on the German Shepherd to intimidate him. But the German Shepherd might have actually saved his life, because every time that he would roll near the German Shepherd, the German Shepherd would growl. But Martin had a German Shepherd puppy when he was a baby and grew up with German Shepherds. So I always used to tell him that the German Shepherd saved his life, that in trying to keep the German Shepherd calm, he kept himself calm. Because this was something that was typical in Georgia, we didn’t see much about. We didn’t hear much about it. But time and time again, young men were taken to prison, and they never got there. They would either confess, and to something they didn’t do, or quite often. And this is what he thought that he was about. He was taken on a ride, and he would probably be dumped into the Flint River, which flows into the Chattahoochee, which flows down into the Gulf of Mexico. So this was a night of death.

Strangely enough, he got there. And when he got there, nobody knew where he was. But there happened to be an election going on. And a young man, who had met Mahatma Gandhi when he was 12 years old in India, was working on John Kennedy’s staff, and he happened to be in John Kennedy’s bedroom. Nobody wanted John Kennedy involved in this, so to do anything about. They didn’t even want him to know about it. And Harris Wofford called Coretta, and Coretta said she didn’t know where her husband was, but who comes in the room, but John Kennedy, the candidate for President. And so Harris Wofford hands him the phone and says, “Say hello to Mrs. King”. And that changed the destiny of this nation for when Daddy King heard about it, he said, “I’ve been around a long time, and I never heard any white preacher pick up the phone and call a black woman whose husband was in prison to find out how she was doing”.

And he said, “I was looking at this Nixon boy, but ’cause I didn’t know about these Roman Catholics”, he said, “but I still can’t get over the fact that this Catholic boy picked up the phone to call a black woman to see about his son, her husband”. And he said, “I think I got a suitcase full of votes, and I’m going to throw all those votes toward this Kennedy boy”. And I think that tipped the election, and it shifted our history significantly. But it wasn’t, it wasn’t the end, and it wasn’t really even the beginning. For there was a mixed value attached to association with our movement. And with any of us. Yes, we were important politically and intellectually and emotionally and musically and every other way, but we were still just a 12 to 15% minority that could swing an election one way or the other but could not determine. And so there was always tension between the Kings and the Kennedys.

Now that tension led to a series of failures. In fact, the New York Times and the Washington Post had written off Martin Luther King as a failure after the Albany Movement in 1961 and1962. The real truth was that Martin was not prepared for that movement. He had just gotten outta jail and released and recovered from being in jail in Reidsville. And he was, he didn’t want to go to jail. He understood that a movement had to be a serious planned effort, and it couldn’t be just spontaneous, jumping up and down and declaring anything. And so he was almost glad when he was put in jail, and it required the failure of the movement in Albany, Georgia. But that only led him to realize that he had to give more time, and he had to, he had to really plan a movement.

So when 60 homes were bombed in Birmingham in 1961 and 62, Fred Shuttlesworth came to Birmingham, from Birmingham to Atlanta. And actually we had not seen much of in the Atlanta papers, though, Atlanta’s just 150 miles away from Birmingham. And Fred said, “My church has been bombed three times. I barely escaped”. He said, “but this passive non-violence isn’t working for us. We’ve got to find a way to be more aggressive”. And this was in December of 1962. And Martin said, “Well, we’ll join you in January or February, but you have an election coming up, and we wouldn’t want to interfere with that”. But he turned to me and he said, “Andy, do you know any white folks in Birmingham?” And I said, “No,” I said, “I’m from New Orleans, and I really have spent very little time in Birmingham. And I don’t know any black folks in Birmingham coming to think of it, not well”.

And so he said, “Well, you got maybe 30 days to meet some”. I said, “What for? Why me?” And he said, “Because if we’re going to have a movement there, we’ve got to have somebody to negotiate with”. And he said, “When you’re having a movement, you start off with investigation of the issue. And we’ve done that. We know the bombings. We know why they happen. But then you have to take your grievances to someone. And we need a white business committee that we can talk to”. Well, it turned out that I was with the National Council of Churches just before I went to work with him. And I’d been to a conference in Michigan, and I met a delegation from Birmingham. It happened to be an Episcopal delegation. And I picked up the phone and I called the Cathedral, not quite a cathedral like this, but it was a Birmingham Cathedral, and it was the Office of the Bishop.

It turned out that the person I had met in Michigan answered the phone. And she remembered meeting this delegation, and with me, and agreed to set up an appointment with the Bishop. Well, the Bishop then agreed to set up an appointment with a dozen businessmen, which grew to 80, and Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Walker, and the delegation that was planning to demonstrate. Now, the demonstrators had already, the protestors had already sat down and written a Birmingham Manifesto. And they had worked on it. And these were not educated people. They were people who were writing their own complaints. It turned out that that Birmingham Manifesto was taken by Derek Bell, who was one of our lawyers in Birmingham, and he took it with him to Harvard. And that was the beginning of what we call Critical Race Theory, because from the Birmingham Manifesto written by people in Birmingham, he took it to Harvard, and it became a cause cèlébre all over the country.

But I say this because this is what Martin Luther King is about. This is what his ministry led to. It led to the transformation of this nation to get us where we are today. Now, that was not it. That was not all of it. We were able to take those 10 business people and create a committee of about 80 that eventually, through constant negotiations, agreed to desegregate Birmingham in June of 1963. And so Birmingham was desegregated in terms of lunch counters, and the Legislature in Alabama had not voted. The City Council had not said a word. But it led us to believe that if you could get 80 businessmen anywhere in the world to agree to something, you could make it happen. And that’s what we had done in Birmingham. And that’s what led, that’s what shaped the Civil Rights Movement and made it politically relevant and successful.

Now, Martin Luther King then made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech here in Washington. And it pulled together not only our nation, but it pulled together the nations of the world. And it won him the Nobel Peace Prize, which only increased the demands. Well on the way back from the Nobel Peace Prize, which really was a $60,000 grant from the Nobel Committee. And we passed through New York and Governor Rockefeller happened to show up at the meeting. And when Martin announced that he was donating the money from the Nobel Prize to all six of the civil Rights organizations, Governor Rockefeller said, “Well, I guess I should do my part. I’ll match it”. So they had $120,000 to divide up. And so it pulled the Civil Rights Movement together again and kept us going. But it also raised the difficulties.

And it was not the end of our movement. It was simply leading us to the middle of the movement, where everybody turned to Martin Luther King for everything and wanted him to organize people and demonstrate, to make sure that it happened. We were successful, I think, in Birmingham. We went to, after New York, we came here to Washington, and President Johnson had, we had a four o’clock appointment, but we didn’t get to see the President until seven o’clock at night. And we were taken to meet with the Vice President and the Attorney General. When we got over to see the President, they wouldn’t let us leave. And we saw the Vietnam experts coming out of the Oval Office, and we realized why the President was late. Well, it wasn’t a very good meeting, but there was no confrontation. There was nothing but congratulations from President Johnson. And Martin Luther King said, “We need to get the right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution in the hands of all of our citizens”. And the only thing we heard from President Johnson was, “I agree with you. You’re right. I just don’t have the power”.

We went at that for about a half an hour, and we left. I said, “You know, the president is right. He doesn’t have the power, and you don’t either. You need to take a sabbatical and think about this. We come back after the next election and we might, we’ll have a program”. He said, “No, we got to get to president some power”. I said, “Now that’s the most arrogant thing I heard from one of you young Morehouse men. You going, don’t have anything to offer, and you gonna get the president some power”. Well, he was speaking of spiritual power, and I didn’t understand that yet. But everything he did from that time on looked like it was failing, and overwhelmingly succeeded. And so, two days after this meeting within Washington, Amelia Boynton came from Selma and told us the story of Selma, told the story of Selma.

And he promised that at the first of the year, we would start a movement in Selma. Well, really in 90 days in, by the end of March, the march on Bloody Sunday, the, all of the events that happened in Selma, a little town of only about 10,000 at that time, had such an impact on the world, that Lyndon Johnson was able to go on television and announce that he was submitting a voting rights bill. And he ended that speech with, “We Shall Overcome”. That set us on the course we thought to success, except that the war in Vietnam that was interrupting us at the Oval Office, was also interrupting us all over the world. And he got pulled into this two-way struggle. He couldn’t say “No” to peace on Earth. And once Life Magazine put this little girl, nude girl, walking down the highway crying, and all of us remember it, it had such an impact that it reversed many of the feelings of the nation about the war in Vietnam. And it was the beginning of our withdrawal, but that wasn’t the, the end of the conflict between us. And that conflict continued to grow.

It was also added to the fact that he was then being, it was almost demanded that we tried non-violence out in the north. And somebody said that they didn’t think non-violence would work in Chicago. And so Chicago invited us to come there. That started, you know, with an organization of less than 50 people. We have movements all over the south, registering voters. And then we started a move, another movement in Chicago, a city that had had almost as many black people as we had all over the South. And that was a pretty difficult period. But he was up to the cause and never backed down. But more and more he realized that the problems we have in northern cities were not just social and religious. They were, they were economic. And that a poor people’s campaign had to really deal with the economic issue of housing, healthcare, poverty. We were getting some results from the poverty program. At least we got the nation realizing that our problems had serious depth to them. And he was committed to do whatever had to be done.

That commitment led him to Memphis. He was supposed to be in Washington that night, the night before. And he, I said to him in a meeting with Harry Belafonte, John Conyers of Michigan, and Dick Hatcher of Gary, mayor of Gary, Ralph Abernathy and myself, that, “You know, you need a rest but go to”. It was supposed to be here by eight o’clock at night, and it was midnight Sunday night. And he said, ‘No, I’m gonna catch the six o’clock plane to Memphis”. And I said, “Why? You’ve been to Memphis twice already”. He said, “Yeah, but there’s something there”. I’ve later realized that I think he knew his days were numbered. And I think he had decided that if he gave his life, he wanted it to be for the least of these God’s children. That was a term that he used all the time. And that the sanitation workers, the garbage workers in Memphis, were a perfect example of people who were working hard. You can’t run a city if you can’t pick up the garbage. But the garbage workers had no benefits, had no retirement, no insurance of any kind, and were really still virtual slaves in our modern democracy.

And he was determined to go back. I think he knew. And everything about the way he acted the next few days led us to believe that yes, he knew he was going to his death. Fortunately, his death was simple, and in many ways, beautiful. I got, well, I got put outta Sunday school when I was about 10 years old because, well my mother was the superintendent, and they sent me to my mother because I said I didn’t believe that Elisha went to heaven on a flaming chariot. And I still didn’t believe it. But when I heard that shot, and I looked up at Martin Luther King and ran to the top of the steps and realized that the shot had entered the tip of his chin and knocked it off, and then severed his spinal cord. And the simple logic and mathematics of it is that the bullet moved faster than his feelings. And he probably never felt that bullet. He probably never heard that bullet for it had severed his spinal cord. And I said, “Yes, maybe it is true. Maybe it is that somebody can go straight from this life to heaven on a flaming chariot. And if anybody can do it, Martin Luther King can”.

I think that’s the reason why, 50 years some years later, we still are gathering all over the world to celebrate him. To celebrate his life, to celebrate his death, and to celebrate the values for which he gave his life. And it’s like keeping alive. It’s about 80 to 90 years, 120 years after Jesus’ life, before the New Testament got written. We are within, we’re within 50 years. So some of us still remember, and that’s why I’m maybe boring you, maybe educating you, with my memories of this story. ‘Cause it’s a story that has led my life from that time from to go back. Because the last thing we did when we were talking, he was saying this, “We needed to take the movement out of the streets and put it into Congress. We shouldn’t have to pick up the phone. We, we should be able to pick up the phone and call our elected leader. We shouldn’t have to march a thousand people every time we want to have a change”.

And so I ended up, when nobody else wanted to run, I ended up in Congress. And then when Jimmy Carter decided he was, and, Jimmy Carter, that’s another story. Jimmy Carter was the person, perhaps maybe most like Martin Luther King, in the sense that everything he did and everything he committed himself to, he was willing to put God first, put the people first and put the rights and the positive blessings for this country first. And he didn’t care whether he won or lost. He simply felt that we could deliver in this country things that made us more like the Kingdom of God. And when he said, “I need you at the United Nations”, you know, so be it. Well, everything has worked out. But it is not because Andy Young went to the United Nations. It’s because that boy that used to work with Martin Luther King, he the ambassador now.

And it’s, it’s a continuous, I think, movement of the spirit. And when you come to this church as one of the last speeches, sermons that he preached was from that big pulpit that we’re reorganizing now, right here where I’m looking. And he was a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And one thing, I might be going too long, but gimme two minutes, because he was ahead of himself in 1966. He decided that the way to heal the problems between Israel and the Palestinians and Jordan, basically, was to get them interested in tourism. Tourism had led to Atlanta’s integration. And we were doing very well. And so he and Sandy Ray and Gardner Taylor in Washington, in New York, decided that they were going to take tourists, black tourists, to the Holy Land.

And we had signed up 4,000 black folk to go to the Holy Land. And Martin was not only endorsing it, he was promoting it, because he felt that we could get the Israelis and the Jordanians to open the Mandelbaum Gate and so that the black tourists could move back and forth. They had come together and promoted funds to build an amphitheater around the Sea of Galilee and Sandy Ray was gonna bring a hundred voice choir from New York. And Martin Luther King was gonna preach from a boat. And we were gonna have people shouting all over the Holy Land. And we were on the right track. We had the right mission, but it was just a little too late. ‘Cause after making all the arrangements and getting on the plane to come back to Atlanta, the first Egyptian jets were shot down over this very Gaza that we’re fussing about now.

And so it’s, freedom is a constant struggle. Life is not easy. Martin Luther King had one of the toughest lives of anybody I have ever known about. And yet you have to say that his life was triumphant over most of the evils of his time. And he inspired and he strengthened us, though that, so that we must keep on keeping on. And we’re not just celebrating, we’re recommitting. This is maybe the most difficult time in my life, but I remember Franklin Roosevelt saying, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. And this country and these people, us people, as confused and conflicted and weak as we are, are still imbued by the power of the spirit of the living God and his son, Jesus Christ, and his disciple Martin Luther King. And you and I have bought into that tradition simply by coming to this church and being willing to receive Communion. God has blessed us. We must pass on those blessings to the rest of his children. Thank you very much.


The Rev. Andrew J. Young