When Philip Wogaman traveled to dusty Selma, Ala., in 1962 to organize voters, he learned about more than civil rights and nonviolence. What the fresh-faced young minister saw in Martin Luther King Jr. and the black churches was a faith so strong that he realized he hadn't known Christianity until then.
The segregated town often convulsed with anger toward blacks and outsiders, and arrests were common. Black children were jailed, hosed down, then left to sit in the cold, sometimes all night.
"With so much hate, these people were absolutely committed to love," says Dr. Wogaman, who now leads Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, where the Clintons attend. "It wasn't love as a strategy or tactic. It was real. It was a love for the oppressor because they are the ones most harmed, because their God-given selfhood is destroyed when they act out of hate."
But these days King's religion, the heart and soul of his legacy, is largely ignored. King may have a national holiday and be revered as leading the charge to end racial injustice, but his biblical dimension is rarely mentioned.
"Those of us who knew and worked with King knew him as a preacher," says the Rev. Dr. Joan Campbell, director of the National Council of Churches (NCC). "But as the years go by, people see him as the great civil rights leader and ignore the thing that most drove him - his faith."
College lectures, political speeches, and public-school textbooks barely mention King's Christian roots. A 1995 high school text quotes King on Vietnam, civil rights, and "compassion and love." But it says nothing of his calling, or of his upbringing as the son of the most important black minister in Atlanta, if not the South. Tellingly, King's collected sermons are out of print.
King came from a long line of preachers, and there was an expectation that he would follow in his ancestors' Southern Baptist footsteps. But in every man's life there comes a moment of truth with God, and King had his.
It came late one night on Jan. 27, 1956, at the height of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. King had received death threats, he was exhausted from meetings, and for the first time felt he may not be up to the task of organizing the community. He also feared for his young family. Praying for guidance, King got his answer. "It seemed at that moment," he later told an interviewer, "that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, 'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you....' I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on."
The link between Christian faith and the civil rights movement was inexorable. Without a genuine vision of Christian love, the movement would have early fallen apart, says Dr. Campbell, who sat in King's inner circle. King "profoundly felt a feeling of love for whites. Inside staff meetings, he would constantly tell blacks, 'You must work with our white brothers and sisters. They are God's children.' That kind of love is not easily understood. But he had it."
"In America, for whatever reason, a man can't be spiritually sensitive and great and at the same time be politically potent. We have a hard time conceiving of that," says James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington. "King showed us with his combination of a tough mind and a tender heart that is not true. But we forget it."
Even King's role as a minister is often underplayed. In Southern black culture, a minister's role is one of prestige and power. The pastor is political leader, spiritual guide, community organizer, and social monitor all rolled into one, says Taylor Branch, author of a book about America in the King years.
Not all who took part in the civil rights movement shared King's religious foundation. Once, young whites from San Francisco rolled into Selma and began to protest loudly and militantly, stirring the town precipitously, recalls Wogaman. Then, in a late-night prayer meeting, an older black man stood up and spoke with unearthly eloquence about liberation. Turning to the Californians, he said, to the best of Wogaman's memory: "I don't know why you are here, but if you aren't here because of God, you don't belong."
"The deep religion in that single comment turned everything around, morally," Wogaman says. "The climate changed. The kids became good soldiers and saw a lot more in the methods of Martin Luther King."