This is the first of a three-part series that will explore the African-American experience among Georgia Baptists. Future stories include a February reflection for Black History Month and an April installment observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Voices yet to be heard include Decatur Church Planter Tez Andrews, Pastor Grady Caldwell of New Mercy Baptist Church in Newnan, Pastor Jean Ward of East Atlanta Church and president of the Georgia Baptist African-American Fellowship, and Georgia Baptist State Missionary Gabriel Stovall. For the sake of this article, African Americans are referred to as Blacks and Anglo Americans are referred to as Whites to reflect the language of the era.
LITHONIA – Michael Pigg was barely eight years old the night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN. This year, exactly half-a-century later, he remembers the shock expressed by two of his uncles – one who had to be talked down from responding in violence.
One uncle broke into the living room screaming, “They killed him! They killed him!” When he explained that he was talking about the murder of King, another uncle went for his gun before being calmed down by Pigg’s father.
“He was going out to kill someone,” he remembers.
The pain was understandable. The hurt was deep. The hope for the future lay bleeding on a catwalk of the Lorraine Motel.
“I remember my Dad always telling me that Dr. King was our hope. It was not a surprise how people reacted to such a tragic event,” he says.
Pigg’s father educated the young man by giving him “word pictures,” the Georgia Baptist minister says today. It was a way of protecting his son against a world that was very unsafe for African Americans.
“I remember very well, when we would go downtown or to the Courthouse in Lewisburg, TN, that my dad reminded me not to drink out of this water fountain or use that bathroom. It was his way of teaching me survival in the South so I would stay out of trouble by making mistakes.
“I had to be taught the difference between being White and being Black and I should never cross that line, even by accident.”
Years later at Southern Seminary, Pigg fleshed out King’s contribution to American culture – and African American society – by writing his junior thesis on “The Theological Ethics of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” He has since referenced what he learned many times. And once or twice a year he draws from the thesis and King’s writings as he crafts sermons for his congregation at Lithonia’s Philadelphia Baptist Church.
In that seminary paper, Pigg delved into why King explored Mahatma Gandhi’s ethics on non-violent passive resistance. King was seeking a way to overturn the oppression he and other Blacks were encountering and, as a Christian, was seeking to understand how others dealt with injustice.
Though half a world away, the situations he found in India were clearly similar; Whites were suppressing Blacks in America; the British were suppressing residents in their own country as an occupying presence.
The common thread was exploitation of a weaker group by a stronger group.
“Dr. King was very attracted to the concept of non-violent passive resistance but disagreed on its lack of action; he felt that Gandhi’s teachings needed something, a better focus, to motivate people to bring about social change.”
The missing element in Gandhi’s teachings
“That missing element came straight from the Bible, the notion of the overpowering love of God that is found throughout scripture,” Pigg relates.
Dr. King stressed in his book, “Strength to Love” that…
Hate makes a man bitter, but love makes a bitter man better.
Hate makes a man angry, but love makes a heated man happy.
Hate makes a man distrustful, but love turns a cynic into a saint.
Hate makes a man self-serving, but love turns an egotist into a selfless servant.
It was Jesus who said, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind, let each esteem the other better than themselves.” Such is the life of a servant who expresses Agape love.
This April 4 is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. But we don’t celebrate his death … we celebrate his love … his Agape love for man. And in so doing, we also celebrate more than 2,000 years of Christ, the King. Christ’s message of love is the one Dr. King carried throughout his life.
Like Christ, Dr. King was persecuted for love’s sake. But love knows no retaliation. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Love never fails. Prophesies fail; promises fail; knowledge fails; but love never fails. The Word says it; Dr. King believed it, and did his best to live it.
King expanded Gandhi’s teachings to include a Christian perspective that fit well with his calling as a minister of the gospel. By using scripture, it would also strike a cord with his audiences – White and Black – as they dealt with the issue in the teachings they both received on Sunday mornings.
He frequently drew from 1 John 4:7-9 (KJV) which reads, Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. 8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. 9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
God is pure and unconditional love
“The Bible teaches that God is pure and unconditional love and the only way the Christian Church can overcome the world is through acts of love,” Pigg maintained in his thesis. It was right out of the words of Christ whom they both served.
That acknowledgement made all the difference in the world and in King’s growing movement. Even as White Christians persecuted Black Christians.
Both races preached from the same Bible on Sunday morning, but White Christians justified that subjugation, eventually rationalizing it through scripture as separate but equal. It was a monumental task because Georgia, the proverbial buckle on the Bible Belt, ranked second only to Mississippi in lynchings with 589 between 1877 to 1950.
King, as an American Baptist minister, used scripture to rally Black America and turn the segregation argument on its head. He preached that God looked not on the Outer Man but on the Inner Man; not on the color of the skin but on the condition of the heart, Pigg stresses.
That message slowly caught fire among White laity and pastors wo began to speak out from a biblical perspective. They followed King’s teachings which he drew from I Cor. 13, commonly known as the Love Chapter. The transforming power of love, as written by the Apostle Paul and having been lived out in the life of Christ, became the heartbeat of King’s message.
“The Civil Rights Movement evolved into such a powerful movement and spoke with such an undeniable authority because it was rooted in God’s love for people to treat their fellowman as they want to be treated. It was meant for both sides to look to love … Blacks for biblical love for their oppressors, Whites for love of those they were oppressing.
“That was Dr. King’s legacy.”
From that point forward the movement shifted, slowly, into a peaceful resistance that made headlines by their actions.
They stood their ground and loved their enemies
“Fire hoses were turned on them, police dogs were let loose and their clothes were ripped and their flesh was torn. But the news coverage shows they stood their ground and loved their enemies. The Bible has always taught that when you love your enemies it is like heaping coals of fire on their heads. It really created a dilemma when the Blacks did not fight back and aggravate the situation,” he says.
Pigg is quick to say that not all demonstrations and marches were innocent and there were many Blacks who did not embrace King’s teachings. Even Pigg’s uncle who went for his gun that night ended up joining the radical Black Panthers.
But there were enough to turn the tide and that is what King was seeking … White Christians linking arms with Black Christians when they brought out the fire hoses and police dogs. A critical mass had been achieved to help turn the tide; the power of the Church had been tapped to bring about social justice.
“The movement had such a powerful authority because it was rooted in the biblical love as personified in Christ and His teachings. I think that is why many of the movements that followed Dr. King’s death lost their power; they drifted from that key foundation.
“The Rainbow Coalition, Operation Push, Southern Christian Leadership Conference all seemed to drop the unconditional love dimension and drifted more into being groups of political activism,” he says.
Then Pigg pauses and reflects back on the early teachings of his father.
“I remember very well his protecting me on those visits to town and then his saying, ’Dr. King is going to change that for us.’ I’m glad that he did.”
Today Pigg and other Georgia Baptist African Americans, along with fellow White Georgia Baptists, will pause to reflect on the good that King brought to the world from his pulpit at downtown Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
And while the journey is not complete toward racial harmony, it is much further down the road than if King had not been to the mountain top and looked over into the Promised Land.