Last summer I spent some vacation time in Atlanta with my family. While there, my youngest son, Justin, and I made a pilgrimage to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the birthplace of much of the civil rights movement. In addition to being a place of worship, Ebenezer Baptist is now a historical landmark and teaching facility for those interested in learning more about King and the civil rights movement.
As I entered, the simple grandeur of the place struck me. The well-worn pews stood proudly in the immaculate sanctuary. The audio system played recordings of some of King's most famous speeches, and I was immediately taken back to 1965. I heard the applause. I joined the chorus of "amens." I was really there, part of the struggle, part of that great movement.
I was quickly snatched back to 2002, however, when one of the National Park Service rangers assigned to the church lowered the volume on the speakers so he could give a prepared speech. Now, I must admit that I became a bit annoyed at this point, because I thought, "What can this guy tell me about Dr. King that I don't already know? I am a black child of the '60s. I remember when he was shot. I read about him in school. I have seen countless documentaries on the civil rights movement."
But the learned park ranger surprised me. He didn't start his presentation by talking about King or the famous civil rights marches or even Ebenezer Baptist Church. He started by pointing to two stained-glass windows to his left and to his right, which bore the images of King's maternal grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Williams, and his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.
I learned that A.D. Williams, who served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist for 37 years, was an eloquent speaker and noted local political activist who contributed his efforts -- and meeting space in his church -- to a number of organizations dedicated to the education and social advancement of black citizens.
On Thanksgiving Day 1926, Williams's daughter Alberta married Martin Luther King Sr., a young minister. The couple moved into an upstairs room in Williams's home. King Sr. worked weekdays, preached Sundays and spent evenings at Morehouse College studying toward his divinity degree.
Williams mentored King Sr., and upon Williams's death in 1931, King Sr. -- or "Daddy King," as he affectionately came to be known -- took over as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist. Like his father-in-law, Daddy King focused his ministry on social justice, and he sought to engage and empower all black citizens in his community. In fact, he once proclaimed Ebenezer Baptist Church as a home for everyone "from PhD's to no D's."
Daddy King was an involved father who always stressed the importance of education to Martin Jr. and his other children. In fact, he once said that even before Martin Jr. could read, "he kept books around him; he just liked the idea of having them." It's no surprise, then, that Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from Morehouse College at 19 and, before turning 27, had earned two additional degrees -- a bachelor of divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary and a PhD in theology from Boston University.
Five-year-old Martin Jr. formally joined his father's church in 1934. The young King preached his first sermon under the watchful eye of his father at age 17 and soon joined him as co-pastor. In 1957, Ebenezer Baptist Church held an organizational meeting for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Martin Luther King Jr. became the first president of the SCLC, an important organization at the forefront of the civil rights movement. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As the park ranger closed his presentation, I was struck by one realization and one question. I realized that generations before King uttered the now immortal words "I have a dream," there were others -- a grandfather and a father -- who instilled great dreams in him and had great dreams for him. He was the product of a legacy, a fatherhood legacy. The question: What would have been the legacy of the great dreamer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., if he had not had the guidance, nurture and support of those important dreamers who came before him?
The writer is president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting responsible fatherhood.