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Chapter 6: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

You the people of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church have called me to serve as pastor of your historic church; and 1 have gladly accepted the call It is with more than perfunctory gratitude that 1 offer my appreciation to you for bestowing upon me this great honor. I accept the pastor ate dreadfully aware of the tremendous responsibilities accompanying it. Contrary to some shallow thinking; the responsibilities of the pastorate both stagger and astound the imagination. They tax the whole man.

  • January 24, 1954 King delivers trial sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama
  • February 28 Delivers guest sermon at Second Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan
  • April 14 Accepts call to Dexter's pastorate
  • May 2 Delivers first sermon as Dexter's minister
  • October 31 Officially becomes pastor of Dexter; King Sr. delivers installation sermon
  • August 26, 1955 Rosa Parks, secretary of Montgomery NAACP chapter, informs King of his election to executive committee
  • November 17 First child, Yolanda Denise, is born

    After being in school twenty-one years without a break, I reached the satisfying moment of completing the residential requirements for the Ph.D. degree. The major job that remained was to write my doctoral thesis. In the meantime I felt that it would be wise to start considering a job. I was not sure what area of the ministry I wanted to settle down in. I had had a great deal of satisfaction in the pastorate and had almost come to the point of feeling that I could best render my service in this area. I never could quite get the idea out of my mind that I should do some teaching, yet I felt a great deal of satisfaction with the pastorate.

    Two churches in the East-one in Massachusetts and one in New York-had expressed an interest in calling me. Three colleges had offered attractive and challenging posts-one a teaching post, one a deanship, and the other an administrative position. In the midst of thinking about each of these positions, I received a letter from the officers of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, saying that they were without a pastor and that they would be glad to have me preach when I was again in that section of the country. They had heard of me through my father in Atlanta. I wrote immediately saying that I would be home in Atlanta for the Christmas holidays, and that I would be happy to come to Montgomery to preach one Sunday in January.

    The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church had a rich history. Many outstanding ministers served there, including Dr. Vernon Johns. It was a very fine church with even greater possibilities.

    Asking for God's guidance

    On a cool Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama. It was one of those clear wintry days when the sun bedecked the skies with all of its radiant beauty. After starting out on the highway, I happened to have turned on the radio. Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera was on the air with a performance of one of my favorite operas--Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. So with the captivating beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti's inimitable music, and the matchless splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive-especially when one is alone-was absorbed into meaningful diversions.

    After about a four-hour drive, I arrived in Montgomery. Although I had passed through the city before, I had never been there on a real visit. Now I would have the opportunity to spend a few days in this beautiful little town, which has the distinction of being one of the oldest cities in the United States. It occupies an undulating site around a sharp bend in the Alabama River in the midst of rich and fertile farmland.

    Not long after I arrived a friend was gracious enough to take me by the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where I was to preach the following morning. A solid brick structure erected in Reconstruction days, it stood at one corner of a handsome square not far from the center of town. As we drove up, I noticed diagonally across the square a stately white building of impressive proportions and arresting beauty, the State Capitol-one of the finest examples of classical Georgian architecture in America. Here on January 7, 1861, Alabama voted to secede from the Union, and on February 18, on the steps of the portico, Jefferson Davis took his oath of office as President of the Confederate States. For this reason, Montgomery has been known across the years as the Cradle of the Confederacy. Here the first Confederate flag was made and unfurled. I was to see this imposing reminder of the Confederacy from the steps of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church many times in the following years. 

    Saturday evening, as I began going over my sermon, I was aware of a certain anxiety. Although I had preached many times before having served as associate pastor of my father's church in Atlanta for four years, and actually doing all of the preaching there for three straight summers-I had never preached in a situation in which I was being considered for the pastorate of a church. In such a situation one cannot but be conscious of the fact that he is on trial. Many questions came to my mind. How could I best impress the congregation? Should I attempt to interest it with a display of scholarship? Or should I preach just as I had always done, depending finally on the inspiration of the spirit of God? I decided to follow the latter course. I said to myself over and over again, "Keep Martin Luther King in the background and God in the foreground and everything will be all right. Remember you are a channel of the gospel and not the source." With these words on my lips I knelt and prayed my regular evening prayer. I closed the prayer by asking for God's guidance and His abiding presence as I confronted the congregation of His people on the next morning. With the assurance that always comes to me after sincere prayer, I rose from my knees to the comfortable bed, and in almost an instant I fell asleep.

    I arose early on Sunday morning-a custom I follow every Sunday in order to have an hour of quiet meditation. It was a beautiful morning. From my window I watched the sun rise in the eastern horizon and move out as if to point its Technicolor across the lofty blue. I went over my sermon one more time. 

    Eleven o'clock soon came around and I found myself in the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. A large congregation turned out that morning. My sermon topic was "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life." The congregation was receptive, and I left with the feeling that God had used me well. I was also greatly impressed with Dexter and its vast possibilities. Later in the day the pulpit committee asked me if I would accept the pastorate in the event they saw fit to call me. I answered that I would give such a call my most prayerful and serious consideration. After this meeting, I left Montgomery for Atlanta, and then took a flight back to Boston. 

    About a month later I received an air-mail, special-delivery letter from Montgomery, telling me that I had been unanimously called to the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I was very happy to have this offer, but I did not answer immediately. Now I had to face up to the problem of what to do about the several offers that had come my way. It so happened that I was to take a flight to Detroit, Michigan, the next day, where I was to preach the following Sunday. I thought about this important matter all the way to Detroit. It was one of those turbulent days in which the clouds were hovering very low, but as the plane lifted itself above the clouds, the choppiness of the flight soon passed away. As I sailed along noticing the shining silvery sheets of the clouds below and the dark deep shadow of the blue above, several things came to my mind.

The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life

The Length of Life, as we shall use it, is not its duration, not its longevity. It is rather the push of a life forward to its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one's personal welfare. The Breadth of Life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The Height of Life is the upward reach toward God. These are the three dimensions of life, and, without the due development of all, no life becomes complete. Life at its best is a great triangle. At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stands other persons, and at the tip top stands God. Unless these three are concatenated, working harmoniously together in a single life, that life is incomplete.

From sermon delivered at Dexter, January 24, 1954

At this time I was torn in two directions. On the one hand I was inclined toward the pastorate; on the other hand, toward educational work. Which way should I go? And if I accepted a church, should it be one in the South, with all the tragic implications of segregation, or one of the two available pulpits in the North? Now, I thought, as the plane carried me toward Detroit, I had a chance to escape from the long night of segregation. Could I return to a society that condoned a system I had abhorred since childhood?

These questions were still unanswered when I returned to Boston. I discussed them with my wife, Coretta (we had been married less than a year), to find that she too was hesitant about returning south. We discussed the all-important question of raising children in the bonds of segregation. We reviewed our own growth in the South, and the many advantages that we had been deprived of as a result of segregation. The question of my wife's musical career came up. She was certain that a Northern city would afford a greater opportunity for continued study than any city in the deep South. For several days we talked and thought and prayed over each of these matters.

Finally we agreed that, in spite of the disadvantages and inevitable sacrifices, our greatest service could be rendered in our native South. We came to the conclusion that we had something of a moral obligation to return-at least for a few years.

The South, after all, was our home. Despite its shortcomings, we had a real desire to do something about the problems that we had felt so keenly as youngsters. We never wanted to be considered detached spectators. Since racial discrimination was most intense in the South, we felt that some of the Negroes who had received a portion of their training in other sections of the country should return to share their broader contacts and educational experience. Moreover, despite having to sacrifice much of the cultural life we loved, despite the existence of Jim Crow, which kept reminding us at all times of the color of our skin, we had the feeling that something remarkable was unfolding in the South, and we wanted to be on hand to witness it.

With this decision my inclination toward the pastorate temporarily won out over my desire to teach, and I decided to accept the call to Dexter for a few years and satisfy my fondness for scholarship later by turning to the teaching field.

So I went back to Montgomery. Because of my desire to spend at least four more months of intensive work on my doctoral thesis, I asked for and was granted the condition that I would not be required to take up the full-time pastorate until September 1, 1954. I agreed, however, to come at least once a month to keep things running smoothly during this interim period. For the next four months I commuted by plane between Boston and Montgomery.

On a Sunday in May 1954 I preached my first sermon as minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

It is a significant fact that I come to the pastorate of Dexter at a most crucial hour of our world's history; at a time when the flame of war might arise at any time to redden the skies of our dark and dreary world; at a time when men know all too well that without the proper guidance the whole of civilization can be plunged across the abyss of destruction; at a time when men are experiencing in all realms of life disruption and conflict, self destruction, and meaningless despair and anxiety. Today men who were but yesterday ridiculing the Church of Christ are now asking the Church the way to the paradise of peace and happiness. We must somehow give our generation an answer. Dexter, like all other churches, must somehow lead men and women of a decadent generation to the high mountain of peace and salvation. We must give men and women, who are all but on the brink of despair, a new bent on life. I pray God that I will be able to lead Dexter in this urgent mission.

I come to you with nothing so special to offer. I have no pretense to being a great preacher or even a profound scholar. I certainly have no pretense to infallibility-that is reserved for the height of the Divine, rather than the depth of the human. At every moment, I am conscious of my finiteness, knowing so clearly that I have never been bathed in the sunshine of omniscience or baptized in the waters of omnipotence. I come to you with only the claim of being a servant of Christ, and a feeling of dependence on his grace for my leadership. I come with a feeling that I have been called to preach and to lead God's people. I have felt like Jeremiah, "The word of God is in my heart like burning fire shut up in my bones." I have felt with Amos that when God speaks who can but prophesy? I have felt with Jesus that the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and to set at liberty those that are bruised.

I began my full-time pastorate

Montgomery was not unfamiliar to Coretta, for her home was just eighty miles away. (I teased her that she had better be thankful. If she hadn't married me, she'd still be back in Marion, Alabama, picking cotton.) Since her teens she had breathed the free air of unsegregated colleges, and stayed as a welcome guest in white homes. Now in preparation for our long-term return to the South, she visited the Negro section of town where we would be living without choice. She saw the Negroes crowded into the backs of segregated buses and knew that she would be riding there too. But on the same visit she was introduced to the church and cordially received by its fine congregation. And with her sense of optimism and balance, which were to be my constant support in the days to come, she placed her faith on the side of the opportunities and the challenge for Christian service that were offered by Dexter and the Montgomery community.

The church work was stimulating from the beginning. The first few weeks of the autumn of 1954 were spent formulating a program that would be meaningful to this particular congregation. I was anxious to change the impression in the community that Dexter was a sort of silk-stocking church catering only to a certain class. Often it was referred to as the "big folk church." Revolting against this idea, I was convinced that worship at its best is a social experience with people of all levels of life coming together to realize their oneness and unity under God. Whenever the church, consciously or unconsciously, caters to one class it loses the spiritual force of the "whosoever will, let him come" doctrine, and is in danger of becoming little more than a social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.

For several months I had to divide my efforts between completing my thesis and carrying out my duties with the church. I continued to study hard as usual. I rose every morning at five-thirty and spent three hours writing the thesis, returning to it late at night for another three hours. The remainder of the day was given to church work, including, besides the weekly service, marriages, funerals, and personal conferences. One day each week was given over to visiting and praying with members who were either sick or otherwise confined to their homes.

On September 1, 1954, we moved into the parsonage and I began my full-time pastorate. The first months were busy with the usual chores of getting to know a new house, a new job, a new city. There were old friendships to pick up and new ones to be made, and little time to look beyond our private lives to the general community around us.

My installation at Dexter was held on October 31. Daddy came down to preach the sermon and brought about a hundred people. It was a great success. Members of Ebenezer Baptist were present and contributed. Their presence in large numbers meant much to me at the beginning of my pastorate. Their generosity and bigheartedness were in the forefront and continued to prove to me that there was but one Ebenezer. I felt greatly indebted. I would remember that occasion so long as the cords of memory would lengthen.

I took an active part in current social problems. I insisted that every church member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP and organized within the church a social and political action committee-designed to keep the congregation intelligently informed on the social, political, and economic situations. The duties of the Social and Political Action Committee were, among others, to keep before the congregation the importance of the NAACP and the necessity of being registered voters, and-during state and national elections-to sponsor forums and mass meetings to discuss the major issues. Two members of the Social and Political Action Committee - Jo Ann Robinson and Rufus Lewis - were among the first people to become prominent in the bus boycott that was soon to mobilize the latent strength of Montgomery's Negro community.

Looking Beyond Your Circumstances

The Negro who experiences bitter and agonizing circumstances as a result of some ungodly white person is tempted to look upon all white persons as evil, if he fails to look beyond his circumstances. But the minute he looks beyond his circumstances and sees the whole of the situation, he discovers that some of the most implacable and vehement advocates of racial equality are consecrated white persons. We must never forget that such a noble organization as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was organized by whites, and even to this day gains a great deal of support from Northern and Southern white persons.

Sermon delivered at Dexter, 1955

I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face-to-face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Around the time that I started working with the NAACP, the Alabama Council on Human Relations also caught my attention. This interracial group was concerned with human relations in Alabama and employed educational methods to achieve its purpose. It sought to attain, through research and action, equal opportunity for all the people of Alabama. After working with the Council for a few months, I was elected to the office of vice-president. Although the Council never had a large membership, it played an important role. As the only truly interracial group in Montgomery, it served to keep the desperately needed channels of communication open between the races.

I was surprised to learn that many people found my dual interest in the NAACP and the Council inconsistent. Many Negroes felt that integration could come only through legislation and court action the chief emphases of the NAACP. Many white people felt that integration could come only through education-the chief emphasis of the Council on Human Relations. How could one give his allegiance to two organizations whose approaches and methods seemed so diametrically opposed?

This question betrayed an assumption that there was only one approach to the solution of the race problem. On the contrary, I felt that both approaches were necessary. Through education we seek to change attitudes and internal feelings (prejudice, hate, etc.); through legislation and court orders we seek to regulate behavior. Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the road to racial justice is only one lane wide will inevitably create a traffic jam and make the journey infinitely longer.

After I lived in Montgomery about a year, I became the proud father of a little daughter-Yolanda Denise. "Yoki" was a big little girl-she weighed nine pounds and eleven ounces. She kept her father quite busy walking the floor.

And then, the bus boycott began.

NEXT: Chapter 7: Montgomery Movement Begins