I wouldn’t mind a world where facts sometimes slip free, so long as the stories we share have lasting value. Fighting back fake news is one thing. We also have to take the offensive in telling stories that bring us back to life. The story of the mothers and fathers who gave birth to the MLK generation is worth telling every spring.
Along with the better-known life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.’s father, known as Daddy King, two lesser known fathers are worth recalling. First, we should remember the Rev. Dr. James Leonard Farmer, father of civil rights leader James Farmer Jr.
The elder Farmer, like the elder King, was born before the turn of 20th century, within earshot of relatives who could tell firsthand stories of enslavement. Daddy King and Farmer Sr. faced hostile forces, yet both fathers dedicated their lives to building schools, colleges and churches.
Daddy King labored to establish Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church as a fulcrum of social uplift.
Jim Griffin, 86, a young father in the early 1960s, tried to “watch the civil rights movement from afar” – but once he was drawn in, became an effective leader on the local scene.
Media: The Baltimore Sun
Farmer Sr. worked hard in education, dedicating his energies across the South to develop institutions of higher education in Atlanta, Mississippi, Texas and Washington, D.C. Farmer’s work at Wiley College in Marshall, in East Texas, was memorialized in Denzel Washington’s film “The Great Debaters.” But the great educator was also influential in building the Austin institution today known as Huston-Tillotson University.
The Rev. Howard Thurman is the third hero of our story and the reason we choose the month of April to tell this story. When he came to Texas in April 1948 at the invitation of Farmer, Thurman was pastor of an experimental church in San Francisco, dedicated to interracial community. Prior to his San Francisco work, Thurman had taught with Farmer at Howard University’s School of Divinity. Both shared a scholarly interest in the historical interpretation of Scripture.
When Thurman arrived in Austin, he brought with him five lectures that he had been working on for nearly 10 years. The lectures were a long answer to a question he had been asked during a 1935 visit to India. How could Christianity overcome its reputation as a religion that supported slavery and segregation?
Insights that Thurman delivered in the Austin lectures of April 1948 are today available under the title “Jesus and the Disinherited.” The lectures present “what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.”
The book memorializing Thurman’s Austin addresses was first published in 1949. Although we are not exactly sure how the book came into the hands of Martin Luther King Jr., we can be sure that he was reading it about the time he turned 21 as he was working on a paper for seminary.
King’s father was a fraternity brother of Thurman’s. King’s mother was a sorority sister of Thurman’s wife. It is not difficult to imagine how the gift of the book would arrive in time for the young King’s birthday. But here is precisely where the facts slip away and we resume our story.
The young King would soon take up graduate studies at Boston University. A few years later, Howard Thurman would move to take the post as BU’s dean of March Chapel. The two men would get together, likely in October 1953, to watch the World Series on television, featuring Jackie Robinson.
The rest, as we say, is history.
As I say, I don’t mind so much when facts can’t be pinned like flies to cork in every detail so long as the story has worth to it. And so, for me, the story behind “Jesus and the Disinherited” is a story you hold on to. It’s a story of fathers and mothers who heard firsthand accounts of enslavement, who kept their faith in education, and who lived to see their daughters and sons rock the world against oppression.
Greg Moses is author of “Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence.” He lives in Austin and is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative.