What Now? The King of Love
Dr. John Y. Odom
who didn’t understand southern history and ways,
• was a family man. He was born into a highly regarded nuclear family with a father who was present in his life and who was a role model in civil rights, in the
ministry and in public speaking. He was a beloved husband and father,
• was an outstanding student with degrees from HBCU Morehouse College and graduate degrees from Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University,
• was a southern gentleman: well-behaved, courteous and mannerly,
• was well-dressed. He looked “the part,”
• was an effective communicator; he was an orator without peer.
With Dr. King’s background and qualifications, he wasn’t supposed to behave as he did. He was supposed to have understood his place. He was supposed to
have fallen into the “Glad-to-Be-Here” category — being favored by the ruling racists. It didn’t matter that all of the “Content-of-His-Character” boxes were checked.
What mattered was King’s race and the race of those he represented. Black - get back!
In the Deep South in the 1950s, every form of racism, save out-and-out chattel slavery, interconnected into a smothering web of oppression that limited everything
including education, employment, entrepreneurism…dreams. The KKK and lynching were threats. A white boy boasted that he hit a Black girl in the face because
she didn’t step off of the sidewalk to let him pass. There were even southern white liberals in the 1950s! Their mantra, of course, was “Go slow!”
It was not surprising to Black southerners that Dr. King returned to Georgia after his studies in the North. Southern states set aside funds to pay the tuition of Black
scholars to attend northern universities on the condition that those scholars would not attempt to integrate southern universities. Black students were blessed by
the return of our scholars to our schools and communities.
These powerful educators were critical to our education and liberation in the face of the white stranglehold on the curricula of segregated Black schools. Although
Black schools were “separate,” the white school superintendent and board of education controlled the Black schools and school employees. We were required to
read their textbooks and to learn their songs. But like our enslaved forebears who were forced to sit in the balconies of white “Christian” churches; while the
enslavers read “Slave, obey your master,” we heard “God is no respecter of persons.”
Dr. King’s ability to check all of the boxes meant little to white racists. To them, King was n-r preacher fomenting strife. Still the check-off list meant everything to
Black America. Dr. King’s attributes made it impossible for Black southerners of all ages to ignore his call to action. Dr. King’s name compelled transformational
change. Martin Luther led the break from Catholicism to form Protestantism. Dr. King’s was a voice that required listening: a voice that sends chills even today. As
Zora Neal Hurston wrote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say that you enjoyed it.”
When the news of Dr. King’s death sank in, a student standing near me threw a cinder block through the back car window of a white family driving in front of us.
Our Black campus erupted in turmoil for more than a year, with buildings burned and multiple school closings. The tendency in many Black communities around the
nation was to direct rage inward; to damage whatever was near. The calling of Dr. King motivated me and others to take stands for the college. And this is our
calling: to stand up, to speak up and to act up in the face of external and internal vestiges of racism and bigotry. The King calling requires those of goodwill to
persevere through nonviolence.
From a human perspective, Dr. King didn’t have to die so young. Were King like most of us, he would have stopped early on. Had Dr. King quit the movement after
the Montgomery Bus Boycott, history would have acclaimed him a major social reformer. Had he quit after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965
Voting Rights Act, he would have earned the Nobel Peace Prize, the King monument and King Holiday.
A retired Dr. King could have earned acclaim and millions as a public speaker, a professor in prestigious universities, a best-selling author, a consultant and the
pastor of a mega-church. Few would have begrudged him for choosing longevity. But King could not retire. He was called unto death. We are not called unto death,
but we are called to do what we can as often as we can.
In the 80s the Madison Urban League held fundraiser banquets that brought many outstanding national figures to Madison. Around 1985, the keynote speaker was
Mrs. Coretta Scott King. I was honored to be the emcee for the evening and to sing Nina Simone’s elegy “What Now? The King of Love is Dead”, synched to a photo
slideshow of Dr. King, Mrs. King and their family. Mrs. King expressed her gratitude — a high point in my life as a performer. A half century later, Nina Simone’s
lyrics resonate still.
Once upon this planet earth, lived a man of humble birth,
Preaching love and freedom for his fellow man
He was dreaming of the day, peace would come to earth to stay
And he spread this message all across the land…
Turn the other cheek he’d plead, love thy neighbor was his creed
Pain, humiliation, death. he did not dread
With his Bible at his side, from his foes he did not hide,
What will happen now that he is dead?
He was for equality, for all people, you and me.
Full of love and goodwill, hate was not his way.
He was not a violent man, so somebody tell me, if you can
Just why he was shot down the other day?...
By Dr. John Y. Odom
The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the crashing of jets into the Twin Towers, Americans
of age can recall where they were and how they felt at the moment they received the news. The murder of Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. was one of those tragic events that will be seared forever in the memory of those capable of understanding.
April 4, 1968 was a beautiful spring day. I was a student at Lane College, an HBCU in Jackson, Tennessee. A fraternity
brother calmly announced that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis — which is 90 miles away.
From the inception of the United States, the critical issue has been, is and will be the schism between what a person does
versus who one is. If one meets societal expectations; if we work hard and play by the rules, can we expect equal treatment
and equal opportunities? Or, is it that no matter how hard one works and no matter how faithful one is to the rules, the
results are: if you’re white you’re right and if you’re Black, get back!
Dr. King played by the rules and checked all of the boxes. Dr. King:
• was southern born and bred. A liberator born anyplace other than the south would have been viewed as a troublemaker