A dream for the ages
King's message endures and empowers
Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.
At the start of 1955, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a 26-year-old preacher early in a promising ministry career.
He was pastor of a church in Montgomery, Ala., in December that year when Rosa Parks refused to give her seat on a city bus to a white man.
Parks' arrest was the spark that ignited the tinderbox of social injustice that was America in the 1950s. It also launched the civil rights career of King, who with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy - another minister in his 20s - led a boycott of Montgomery's bus system from his pulpit and the streets.
In this 50th anniversary year of the formal start of King's social ministry, a Gainesville minister reflected on the risks the young preacher took in standing up for Parks and other blacks in 1955.
"He absolutely was taking a risk with his ministry career," said the Rev. Milford Griner, president of the Alachua County Ministerial Alliance and former pastor of Paradise United Methodist Church in Alachua.
"He had just arrived at the Montgomery church and was trying to get established," he said. "And when you're a young minister, you don't want to ruffle feathers and cause controversy.
"You focus on your pastorate. But for him to step out and organize the bus boycott, no one had any idea how his church membership would respond to that," Griner said. "So it was risky."
He said the black-church establishment in Montgomery 50 years ago likely was made up of aging pastors. Some may have grown weary of a lifetime of enduring the institutionalized racism of the Deep South, he said, and didn't have the energy to mount a meaningful challenge to it.
"And some really didn't have the courage to come forward and lead such a boycott or movement," Griner said. "Many were heading to retirement and were focused on leading their churches."
Other Montgomery clergy spoke in their churches of the need for a response to Parks' treatment. But King, Griner said, was young and hadn't yet established himself in the system and could afford to step up and take a leadership role.
"He didn't have that big a reputation in the church, so he didn't have that much to lose," he said.
Griner also was 26 when he began his ordained ministry in 1984. He said he thinks young preachers working in the Gainesville area today - and those in their 20s are rare, he said - probably would relate to the young King and his involvement in social issues.
"I know he inspired me," Griner, 47, said as a CD of King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech played in the background. "He showed that when you're young, you have the capacity to do much more, to be involved and active.
"I think young ministers today see him as a great role model because he began at such a young age," he said.
The environment for social change isn't quite as dangerous today as it was for the young King, whose home was bombed during the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. But challenges remain, Griner said.
"Back in the '50s the racism was more overt," he said. "Today it's more covert. It's more in the boardroom than in the streets, but it's still there.
"Today the challenge is for social and economic equality, for more and better opportunities for employment, education and success," he said.
Griner's own social ministry has included assisting residents of Kennedy Homes, a former public-housing complex in southeast Gainesville. Some 500 residents were displaced after an October 2003 fire at Kennedy Homes that revealed many unsafe living conditions. The complex was permanently closed last year.
Griner helped organize rallies and workshops in support of the Kennedy residents. He and other clergy and community groups helped feed the displaced residents at hotels for months while they looked for permanent housing.
Those efforts, Griner said, were made easier by the inspiration provided by a 26-year-old preacher in Montgomery half a century ago.
"He gave me a lot of confidence," he said. "I thought if King can do things being so young, then so can I."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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