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MLK's Death Still Has Profound, Prolonged Effect

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22, 2004 – Shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black was on his way into his college dormitory when he overheard some students talking about King's murder.

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Sixth grader Kendell Cunningham, 12, of Washington's John Tyler Elementary School, who won DoD's King essay-writing contest, chats with U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy rear admiral and former chief of Navy chaplains. Black was the keynote speaker at DoD's 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast Jan. 22 at the Pentagon. Photo by Rudi Williams

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

A participant in the civil rights sit-ins in Alabama, Black said, "I'd seen racism up close and personal. I'd seen the 'colored' and 'white' water fountains."

The students were permeated with ambivalence, said Black, the keynote speaker at the Defense Department's 19th Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast at the Pentagon Jan. 22. "If they will do this to a green tree, what will happen to the dry (tree)?" he wondered, quoting a bible verse. "So there was the feeling that if the apostle of nonviolence would be cut down like this, what should we do as a nation and as a people?

"So I was basically thrown into a quandary," he recalled. "I found myself reflecting and trying to ferret through the many, many issues that Martin's murder raised in my heart."

King's assassination had a profound effect on the rest of Black's life. Calling King's speeches an integral part of his psyche, the chaplain said he'd memorized all of the civil rights leader's speeches. "I could push a button and give you, 'I've Been to the Mountaintop,' or 'I Have a Dream,' or 'We Shall Overcome' or the 'Drum Major Eulogy,'" he said. "So I had a wonderful reservoir to reflect on Martin's American dream."

Black said King's death motivated him to want his ministry to have relevance. "Martin took Christianity out of the cloistered environment of seminaries and brought it to the streets, where it really made a substantive difference," the chaplain noted. "I determined that was what I wanted to do with my ministry. That's probably, to some extent, a part of the motivation for entering the military ministry."

The chaplain maintains that King was a great American, and therefore it's appropriate to honor him with a national holiday. But he said the challenge of having King's commemorative services throughout the nation is to find ways to bring people of different ethnicities together.

"In many of the MLK services, you have more African-Americans attending than any other group," the chaplain noted. "I don't think that fulfills the goal of the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr.

"I also think that in many instances it's more of a day off than an opportunity to mobilize and to do something very practical and substantive for those on life's margins," Black continued. "I think that Martin would be disappointed with the passivity that often characterizes his holiday and the way it's celebrated."

Black pointed out that the military tends to have greater heterogeneity in its audiences and far more non-African-Americans attending ethnic observances and services than found in the civilian sector.

"Martin was a genius," the chaplain noted. "He gave the world something it desperately needed. That was a way to deal with the cycle of violence and retaliation.

"He was also a gifted orator whose words continue to inspire today," he said. "As new generations are being exposed to what he had to say, they're inspired by it.

King once said, "Whatever job you do, do it so well that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn't do it better." "Those are empowering ideals that remind us that we're not just dust," Black noted about the inspirational value of King's words. "We're not just created for a time, but for eternity. So I think he made a global impact. Technology enables the entire world to see the effect of his life."

King also said, "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method that rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation." Black said King worried that modern weaponry could cause irreparable harm.

"Martin was very sensitive to the impact of the technology," he noted. "He recognized that using the technology we have, human beings possess the capability of destroying nations. We now have to come up with a way to live together as brothers and sisters. When we were fighting with sticks and stones, that was a different story. He also said we must learn to live together as brothers or we will die together as fools."

Black said King wasn't rejecting all forms of violence; after all, even Jesus cleansed the temple, knocked over some tables and told people to get out, he said.

"Someone has to stop the Hitlers of the world, he said. "But, before we go to violence as a first option, I think Martin was staying that we should look at every possibility and make violence a last resort before resigning ourselves to that.

"We'd better make sure that there are no totalitarian forces that would overwhelm us," he continued. "We must, therefore, resign ourselves to the awful determinism of armed struggle. But transforming one's enemies into friends is the ideal."

Black became the 62nd chaplain of the U.S. Senate in 2003, the first military chaplain, Seventh-day Adventist minister and African-American to do so. A native of Baltimore, he holds a master's degree in divinity, counseling and management and doctorates in ministry and philosophy.

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