Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Celebrating the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Once a year, I experience in a brief and small way what it is like to be a white minority among a sea of black friends, as I did ten days ago as we celebrated the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Bethel Baptist Church in Monroeville, Alabama. I have attended this local event for the past 18 years except for two occasions when I was speaking at similar events elsewhere. It was again a joyful time of singing, preaching and remembering the long journey that brought us to this time and place in history.

I sat on the podium with a dozen African-American clergymen and looked out at some 500 black faces and five white faces as we worshiped and celebrated. We were touched by the singing of a combined choir of some 70 or more children and youth. We were spiritually moved by the powerful preaching of a young black pastor, the Rev. Otis Dion Culliver, as he preached from the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

I looked at the faces of many older black men and women who I knew had experienced indignities of racism that the children and young people in the choir would never really understand. I could not help but review my own journey from a benighted setting of prejudice and racism to the moment we were celebrating together. That journey is too long and convoluted to recite in a column. There were many people and experiences that influenced my understanding of racial justice, but the most powerful factor in my journey was studying the life and teachings of Jesus. After I made a commitment to the Christian ministry it became increasingly clear that the racism I had been taught was not consistent with the spirit of Jesus. I could not remain a silent bystander in an atmosphere of racial injustice and conscientiously function as a Christian minister. Something had to give. I struggled with ‘what' and ‘how'. I was confronted with a growing understanding of reality that was contrary to everything I had been taught about race relations. My life experience brought several significant ‘tipping points'. I will share just one of them. It was a powerful experience.

You would probably be hard put to understand the extent to which my life had been marinated in racism. I took in racism with my mother's milk. I went through elementary school, high school, four years in college and three years of graduate school at Emory University and never had a black classmate, much less a black teacher. The only black people I knew were poor, uneducated field hands. Many of them had an innate wisdom, but we were completely socially and culturally segregated. Then one day near the end of my seminary education at Emory University, something happened that negated all the racial lessons with which I grew up, a tipping point that affirmed my budding belief, a belief at such variance with the main-stream in the Deep South as to be heresy.

By a strange turn of events, too long to explain here, I got an invitation from an old friend and mentor, the Rev. Welton Gregory, to come to Montgomery, Alabama and travel with ten other ministers to Talledega, Alabama to spend the day with a young black Baptist minister who had just become the Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. I tried to excuse myself from the meeting because I was too busy. The Rev. Gregory would not let me off the hook. He argued that this new minister was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had just graduated with a PhD from Boston University, and that he would likely have a great influence in Montgomery, Alabama (a profound understatement considering momentous subsequent events). After countering all my excuses, he finally said: "Be here at 8:30 tomorrow" and he hung up the phone. I was in Montgomery at 8:30 the next morning.

Eleven of us spent the day with Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the first black person I had ever met who was not a poor, uneducated field hand. He spoke with such gentle erudition. He was completely at ease with these eleven white Methodist clergy. He radiated a genuine unconditional love and a passionate commitment to non-violence in pursuit of racial justice.

I was 'blown away'! Suddenly I knew that all the negative things I had been taught about black people were wrong. Suddenly my secret feeling about the fundamental need for racial justice was affirmed. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a great difference in my life.

That is why I join my African-American brothers and sisters each year to celebrate the birthday and the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He reshaped my life in ways which caused me to lose lots of 'friends', but saved me from a dark and erroneous view of reality that was eating away at my soul.

As a white boy from South of God, I salute The Rev. Dr. King and celebrate his life and witness to truth.