The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is synonymous with many Southern cities, such as Selma, Birmingham, and Memphis.
But King’s formative period occurred between 1951 and 1955, when he attended his Ph.D. in systematic theology at Boston University.
My former rector at college, The Rev. W. Murray Kenney, often told stories of Dr. King, especially when he visited the church in early 1967.
Here, in his own words, are his recollections of that day, as told to parishioner Paul Hirshson:
He came to Cambridge to make an anti-Vietnam [War] speech. I was told the day before that he could not get a place where he could have an international press conference with Dr. Benjamin Spock.
I wasn’t sure what would happen, so I had an enormous amount of anxiety when I got that phone call. They assured me this would be all bona fide press. Well, I had seen King in St. Louis, and I saw the kind of security [he had]. I figured two people most in danger of assassination would be King and Bobby [Robert F.] Kennedy.
My wardens were both out of town. I could make the decision to have him [here] but, because he was coming basically for a political reason, I could not let him speak in the church. But there was the Parish House, sitting there. It was clear [if] Harvard didn’t give him space, nobody else, for whatever reasons, would give him space.
So, with grave reservations, the basis for my decision was: Here’s a national leader; here’s a Baptist minister; here’s a leading Christian in the world. If we don’t give him space and a platform, we would set back race relationships in this place maybe fifty years, and we’d had a fairly good record as a parish. So I got personal security, and lawyers, and then King had his security. Of course, the feds had their security and the Cambridge Police.
It was a huge thing–seven or eight television cameras here–and he and Dr. Benjamin Spock on the stage gave their pitch. I never met them. I was way in the back worrying about everything.
It was a risky time in America, where there was racial tension and animosity in the days of desegregation.
And it was only a year later when King was assassinated in that Memphis motel.
While King is remembered today as a figure in the abstract, focusing mostly on the aspiration of racial harmony, it is instructive to remember that he was also a political figure. The week he was assassinated, he was in Memphis to organize the sanitation workers into a labor union.
It was part of a movement called the Poor Peoples Campaign, which sought economic equality, not just legal and social equality.
Despite the passage of nearly 50 years, as well as the election of many minorities as national leaders, the aims of the Poor People Campaign remain elusive.
So, it’s instructive to note that the establishment of a federal holiday to memorialize Dr. King is not an end unto itself. There is a lot more work to do to realize his dream.