As we sat in the sixth row of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a recording of Martin Luther King’s Drum Major sermon played in the background. It was the last sermon he gave from that pulpit as he would soon leave for Memphis where an assassin would end his life.

Shortly after, a large white man ambled up the aisle. I must admit I am not proud of my knee jerk judgmental reaction. He was the park ranger whose job it was to give a lecture describing the history of this sacred place. I wondered in my mind, why a white southern man should be given the opportunity to explain to a mostly black audience the significance of one of the most important black churches in America.

Then he began to speak.

With humility and conviction he proceeded to deliver the most heartfelt history lesson I’ve ever heard. He began by saying that if we were to remember only two names that day, it would be of the men whose images were memorialized in stained glass on opposite sides of the pulpit. One of Martin Luther King Jr’s maternal grandfather, Reverend A.D. Williams  who helped grow the struggling church with only seventeen members at the time and the other of Dr. King’s father Martin Luther King, Sr. who would lead the church for almost forty years.

Through their example of social gospel, the foundation was laid not just for MLK’s  pursuit of civil rights but for the economic development and success of their more immediate community. They fought for voting rights, education and opportunity at a time when these fights could get you killed.

I learned interesting tidbits like both father and son’s birth name was Michael. It was only during a work trip to Germany that Daddy King (as MLK Sr. was known)  became so inspired by the work of the protestant reformer Martin Luther that he decided he would legally change both his name and that of his son – who only did so reluctantly. In fact, most family members and friends referred to MLK Jr.  by Michael his entire life.

The park ranger’s voice shook with reverence as he marveled at the accomplishments and dispositions of these men through the most cruel and challenging times.

At one point he told how years after his MLK Jr. had been assassinated, a black man came into the church frustrated that the King family had not done enough for civil rights. The man proceeded to shoot Daddy King’s wife in the face, killing her immediately as she had just began to play the organ.

With utter amazement, the park ranger said Daddy King petitioned the government – requesting that neither the white man who had killed his son or the black man who had killed his wife should receive the death penalty. Furthermore, he visited both men in prison, held their hand and forgave them for what they had done.

The park ranger shook his head and wondered aloud, “I don’t know how he did that.” He was awestruck – as was I.

Our history has much to teach us about what we are capable of at, at both our worst and best moments. History we need to hear – at times as the adage goes so we are not doomed to repeat it – but at other times, like the compassion and dignity of Daddy King, precisely so we might.

This history lesson taught me another thing. We should not have judgements or preconceptions with who should be sharing these stories – particularly when they do so with such heartfelt conviction.

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