Preserving King's Legacy At His Spiritual Home

Martin Luther King Jr.'s spiritual is at the Ebnezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. King began preaching there when he was just 19. Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rebecca Roberts talks with Reverend Raphael Warnock, current pastor of the historic church, who offers his insight into preserving King's legacy.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That's one of 14 quotations engraved in granite at the MLK memorial site. The quote is from a 1967 sermon Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he was named co-pastor with his father in 1960. Dr. King became a national voice through his sermons given from that church's pulpit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

Reverend Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: There are times when a manmade law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe. There are times when human laws are of harmony with eternal and divine laws.

ROBERTS: Today, that congregation is led by Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock. And as the current senior pastor at King's spiritual home, Warnock was asked to deliver the benediction at today's dedication ceremony.

Reverend Dr. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: In the days ahead, when our children shall rise up and ask us in the words of Scripture, what mean ye by these stones, we will tell them about a movement that not only liberated a people, but transformed a nation. When our children shall ask us what mean ye by these stones...

ROBERTS: That's Reverend Raphael Warnock closing today's MLK Memorial dedication, which originally was scheduled for August. The ceremony was postponed due to Hurricane Irene, and when I sat down with the Reverend Warnock yesterday, he told me the delay was a bit of a blessing.

WARNOCK: I was working on that up until the very last minute, so it wasn't finished anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARNOCK: So...

ROBERTS: Whew. Thank goodness for Hurricane Irene.

WARNOCK: Wow. I had two extra months to think about it.

ROBERTS: Ebenezer Baptist Church, it's not, you know, a finished memorial. It's a living, breathing congregation. How do you balance this extraordinary legacy with keeping the church relevant and progressive and moving forward in the 21st century?

WARNOCK: You're absolutely right. We are a living, breathing, moving community. The church celebrates this year 125 years. And I think it's important to remember that Dr. King himself stood on the shoulders of pastors of that church who had been activists in their own right. So we continue in that legacy. We've been engaged in a number of recent issues, everything from HIV/AIDS, to the death penalty, to the prison industrial complex, to voting rights, and we are encouraged by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, Dr. King chief among them.

ROBERTS: Did you set out to follow his example specifically, or does almost anyone who's involved in social justice issues, in the South particularly, find themselves following his legacy?

WARNOCK: People often ask me what is it like to stand in Dr. King's shoes. But I'm very clear that while I serve in the pulpit where he served, it's really not my job to stand in his shoes. I think the best I can do is to try to stand on his shoulders and benefit from the insight and the work that's gone before us. If any of us take off to do anything, it's because somebody before us paved the runway so smooth.

ROBERTS: You were born a year after Dr. King was assassinated, never had the chance to meet him, but you preach in the church where he preached. Do you feel a connection to him? Do you feel like you know him in any way?

WARNOCK: It's a strange thing, but actually, I do. I've always felt a kind of connection. There was always something compelling about Dr. King. For me, he's just the clearest example of what it means to have integrity in your ministry and in your leadership. The depth of his commitment to fight for freedom come what may has always been a compelling story for me.

ROBERTS: And as you look to the future and keep Ebenezer Baptist vital and current, what do you preserve? What is worth keeping and looking back to?

WARNOCK: Certainly, the activism, and the sense that the gospel is about more than personal wellness, that it's also about social transformation, the sense that the world ought to be better. And so that's something that we continue to try to pass on. We can't always sing the same songs, or maybe if we sing the same songs we have to sing them in a different way. But the message is still the same. Of one blood, God has made all nations to dwell upon the face of the Earth. That's the core of who we are.

ROBERTS: That's Reverend Dr. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Reverend, thank you so much for coming in.

WARNOCK: Great being here.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.