I have the honor and privilege of serving as General Secretary for the Progressive National Baptist Convention founded in 1961, the one Black Baptist body that would become the denominational home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Having been denied a platform in the National Baptist Convention, USA, over theological differences and personality conflict as the Civil Rights Movement began, Dr. King was not only welcomed into PNBC, but he also spoke at its annual session every year until his death. Although King was not a founding pastor of Progressive, PNBC became THE prophetic voice among Baptists, and its four-fold mission (Fellowship, Progress, Service, Peace) reflected the values of the struggle for justice, equality, and human dignity.
Since then, PNBC has grown to become the second largest Black Baptist convention in the nation. As such, PNBC has, for more than 55 years, borne the responsibility and shared the privilege of providing a prophetic witness to a nation that, with every step forward, seems to take two steps backwards, thereby negating its moral authority. With the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America in 2008, the nation took a major step forward. With the election of Donald Trump, party affiliation notwithstanding, the nation has taken a giant leap backwards. While conducting a campaign oozing with racist rhetoric, sexist salaciousness, xenophobic zeal, and Islamaphobic issues, Mr. Trump tapped into many people’s baser instincts, their lesser angels.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then there’s one image I cannot seem to get out of my mind. About ten days after the presidential election of 2016, I, along with the stunned nation, watched cable news as the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, met in the Oval Office with the newly-elected president–a former reality TV star who had spent the previous 5 years trying to delegitimize the first Black president of the United States by calling into question the place of his birth.
As the camera focused in on a dignified, and always gracious, President Obama on the right, I noticed the bust of Abraham Lincoln peering over Mr. Obama’s left shoulder. Then, as the camera panned left to capture an uncharacteristically deferential and somewhat fidgety image of Donald Trump, I couldn’t help but notice that over Mr. Trump’s right shoulder sat a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., appearing almost to oversee one of the most awkward transfers of power ever witnessed in the history of this country.
The obvious ironies of these images have haunted me ever since: how Lincoln had united a once-divided nation against the sin of slavery; how Obama had brought a nation together with a potently persuasive message of hope and change; how Trump had exploited the divisions of this nation to unite the electoral college while sharply dividing the popular vote; and how King, who was a non-politician, had turned a racially-divided nightmare into a radically-united dream.
I have often wondered what King would say to us today? Much of what we prefer to recall around the celebration of his legacy is the sanitized version of King that reduces the man to more an iconic Rodney King (Can’t we all just get along?) than to the “reformer” King who died speaking out against war, discrimination, and poverty. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign led by King. It will also mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination. We must not forget that the reason King went to Memphis in the first place was to fight for equal wages for sanitation workers. One of the major themes that got lost in the noise of the past election was income inequality. If that bust of King sitting over Trump’s shoulder could speak, I believe he would have whispered a powerful word into the president-elect’s ear that challenged him to address and correct this disparity 50 years later.
Many Americans of all races today prefer to remember King as simply an agent for goodwill rather than as an agitator for change, or as a purveyor of peace, than as a prophet for the oppressed. I choose to remember him and to honor his legacy in the way he actually said HE wanted to be remembered. On February 4, 1968, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, exactly two months to the day he would be killed, Dr. King preached his own eulogy in a sermon that became known as “The Drum Major Speech.” Here’s how he asked to be remembered:
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”
This theme of selfless service harkens back to the mission of PNBC. Crafted and codified by our current president, Dr. James C. Perkins, our mission statement is simple, yet not easy:
“Equipping pastors and churches to be effective in ministry, and lifting our voice on behalf of the voiceless.”
For better than five decades, PNBC has been at the forefront of serving God by lifting the lost, the left out, the locked up and the least of these. Among these servant leaders have been such civil rights icon as Drs. Gardner C. Taylor, William Augustus Jones, Harold A. Carter, Sr. and living legends like Wyatt Tee Walker, J. Alfred Smith, and Otis Moss, Jr. On several occasions, Dr. King reminded us that the never-ending struggle for freedom and justice was not for Black people only, but rather, it was and is “to save the soul of America.” This struggle is a process that takes as long as it takes, but as Dr. King wrote in his compelling Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Human progress will never “roll in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [and women] willing to be co-workers with God. . .”
Under the visionary leadership of PNBC President Perkins, we Progressives will continue to be co-workers with God in speaking truth to power, restoring the voting rights act, engaging in acts of holy resistance, protecting and defending the most vulnerable in society, holding accountable the president-elect and his entire administration, and ever ensuring that what may have begun as a peaceful but awkward transfer of power will end by strengthening and empowering American democracy, with “liberty and justice for all.”
The Reverend Dr. Timothy Tee Boddie is the General Secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Covention.