- Martin Luther King and the Southern Dream of Freedom
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This essay was taken from a Martin Luther King Jr. Day address given by the author on January 17, 2005, in Columbus, Mississippi. The author would like to thank everyone on the Columbus Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Committee, especially Wilbur Colom and Deborah Schumaker of the Colom Foundation. He would also like to thank his wife, Perri Morgan, his sister-in-law Hope Morgan Ward, who is the United Methodist Bishop of Mississippi, and her husband, Mike Ward, who knows a good bowl of butterbeans when he spills it in his lap.
My Grandmama Irene Hart's granddaddy was a preacher, and her daddy was a preacher, and when she was sixteen Irene ran off with a young preacher named Jack Tyson and got married in the back seat of a car. Lots of people still get engaged in the back seat of a car, but Jack and Irene actually got married right there in the back seat of a Model-T Ford on Middle Swamp Road near Greenville, North Carolina. Jack came from a preaching family, too. His Uncle Alonza Tyson, who pronounced them man and wife from the front seat, was a preacher, and his two brothers, Marl and Luther, were both preachers. After they ran off, Jack and Irene raised six sons, and all six of them grew up to be preachers, including my father. My sister Boo graduated from divinity school, as did my cousins by the dozens. My sister-in-law is the United Methodist bishop of Mississippi.
In summary, then, though I am a historian, my father, all five of my Tyson uncles, my grandfather, my great grandfather and my great-great-grandfather were all Free Will Baptist or Methodist preachers. And I just accepted a job as Visiting Professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School. I say these things now so that you know the background I bring to this discussion of another southern preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., and the way that we remember him.
When we come together to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to realize that the King holiday is just shorthand for honoring all of those local people who stood up for justice in the civil rights-era South. If King had never been born, there still would have been a black revolution in the American South in the decades that followed World War II. King himself would be the first person to acknowledge that he did not make the movement; instead, the patient local labors of thousands and thousands of black southerners lifted him up among the rulers of the world. He not only spoke on behalf of thousands of people he never met, but his voice depended almost entirely upon them. Martin Luther King's message was not unlike that of a gospel singer who goes from church to church, making a joyful noise unto the Lord, lifting people's hearts and giving them the strength to do what they know needs doing. Our mind's eye focuses on King, but what historians have learned is that the movement was really made by local people, working in their own communities, far from the television cameras and civil rights celebrities.
And yet there is much to learn from Martin Luther King, and he deserves our [End Page 97] attention today. Like all those preachers I grew up around, I have three points to make in this "sermon." First, it may not seem very profound to you, but King was a southerner, and that indisputable fact colors everything he said and did. Second, King's memory has been...