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‘Til All the World’s an Ebenezer

by Ralph E. Luker on Jan 12, 2000

Ralph E. Luker

As we celebrate the 71st birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., on Jan. 15 and Congress considers a Library of Congress proposal to purchase his papers from the King Estate for $20,000,000, it is time to recall some of the obscure people, particularly hardworking African-American women, who saved the church that nurtured him and composed the movement whose spokesman he became.

King was born in a second-story bedroom of the family home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. He was the second grandchild and first grandson of its owner, the Reverend A.D. Williams, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, just up the street. The family home was surrounded by the modest quadplex apartments and "shotgun" duplex cottages of members of the church. They were a hardworking people of modest means. Then known as a "maids' church," Ebenezer still held its major Sunday service after the women of the congregation had finished Sunday morning chores in the homes of Atlanta's white folk.

The church was named for a memorial altar which the prophet Samuel erected in gratitude for the Lord's storm which scattered a Philistine attack upon the children of Israel. Ebenezer meant "Stone of Help," for,  said Samuel, "hitherto the Lord has helped us." (I Samuel 7:12) Ebenezer  Baptists gathered to give thanks for such help and, in turn, to offer it.

Two years after King's birth, his grandfather died and his father became the pastor of Ebenezer. During the Great Depression, Martin Luther King Sr. rallied the church's members to save it from foreclosure. Without the willingness of its members to share from their small purses, he knew, Ebenezer would have been lost.

The early correspondence of Martin Luther King Jr. with his father is full of reports about Ebenezer's generous women: Mrs. Mamie Williams, Mother Margaret Holley and Sister Luella Allen, "the little Sister that usually sits on the left side of the congregation, shouts up against the wall." Such women were the backbone of the community that nurtured young King. "The church has always been a second home for me," he wrote. They were extended family.

In December 1955, Martin Luther King Jr., then the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., was chosen to lead a boycott of the city's buses to protest racial discrimination. His own congregation in Montgomery was largely composed of men and women whose access to automobiles avoided the indignity of having to move to the back of the bus.The cooks and housekeepers who rode the buses to work in Montgomery's white neighborhoods, like the women King had known at Ebenezer, bore the brunt of the insult. Now, they were ready to protest racial injustice.

We celebrate the life of Martin Luther King because of his leadership in peacefully dismantling segregation. Yet he knew that the success of the movement hinged upon the willingness of thousands of working women and men to accept his challenge to stop using the buses throughout 1956. The bus boycott gave working men and women of Montgomery and African Americans across the land a sense that together they could change the course of history. "My feets is tired," said Montgomery's Mother Pollard, "but my soul is rested."

Martin Luther King Jr., taught us important lessons about human selves, human communities and what is required of us who live in them. He believed that all human beings are created in the image of God. People like ourselves, of course; but people quite different from us: all those others — of belief, of gender, of race, of social class or sexual orientation — all are God's children. However rich or poor, however ignorant or learned, however beautiful or unattractive, however twisted, even, the image of God had become in their life's experience, said King, all people partake in the life of God. Even our apparent enemies, he came to believe, were fellow men, capable of redemption. Alabama's Governor George Wallace, for one, lived to realize that and to ask forgiveness.

As we look to the new millennium, King would wish for us an Ebenezer, a stone of help, a "beloved community." There, rather than exploiting each other, modest folk make modest sacrifices to help each other along the way, like the cleaning lady who gave her mite during the Depression to save the church from foreclosure or those who walked rather than ride a segregated bus in service to the common good. "Here I raise mine Ebenezer," I can hear them sing:

Hither by thy help I've come;
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Ralph E. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.