Remain the Reverend
At Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. now heads to Capitol Hill
The temple of democracy at 407 Auburn Ave. in Atlanta is underwhelming as temples of democracy go, especially in the January rain, when you’re counting on it to restore your faith in all it represents, and maybe even fortify your soul.
Ebenezer Baptist Church is, like all famous buildings, heartbreakingly mortal. It is, unlike all famous buildings much less all famous temples, inescapably humble, made not of marble but rather of red brick the precise color of Georgia clay. It squats rather than soars, more Romanesque than Gothic or Greek, more blocking back than wide receiver. Three stories tall but with no grasping spire, it claims the ground as much as the sky, occupying the corner of a city block like a bulwark. Its stolid architecture announces no ambition greater than a determination to stay put and to hold fast, which, in the light of its history, is the greatest ambition of all. The building is two years shy of 100 years old, and its name, Ebenezer — the Hebrew word for the monument left after a sacrifice, the “stone of help” in the book of Samuel — has been nothing less than its fate.
I have always been struck by the relative modesty of Ebenezer Baptist Church, given its paternal role in the ongoing bloody pursuit of true American democracy. But I didn’t visit it a week ago, indeed a week to the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to admire its splendors. I visited because a few days before I had seen another temple of democracy — the one built in Washington to look like a temple of democracy, with its marble facade and its arched cupola; the one that sits upon a hill — yield so easily to those who sought to desecrate its chambers and defile its animating ideal.
I visited because I wanted to see evidence that the spirit of a building could find something like permanence in the walls of a building, even when that spirit is sorely tested.
I visited because, even as one temple of democracy had failed to repel its invaders, the other temple of democracy had succeeded in sending its leader from the pulpit to the halls of Congress, from Auburn Avenue to First Street, Southeast.
I visited because I needed to find a reason for hope, and I believed I might be able to find it at Ebenezer, with its stubborn adherence to the spirit of struggle and faith, and with its connection to a pastor who had become the senator-elect from Georgia.
And then I found the sanctuary closed.
It wasn’t supposed to be. It almost never had been. Ebenezer Baptist Church was, after all, a structure that took trouble for granted, not just as a matter of possibility but as a precondition of its existence — built both for trouble and after trouble by the Rev. A.D. Williams on land he could afford because the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 had depressed its value. For four terrible days that year, a white mob had inflicted a bloody pogrom on the Black citizens of Atlanta, not only ending 25 lives and destroying emblems of African American prosperity, but also driving white property owners out of downtown. While Atlanta’s “city fathers” set about restoring its curated reputation for racial amity, Williams used bricks and mortar as fortification for his preaching of what was then called “the social gospel.” And when the reverend died in 1931, he passed the leadership of Ebenezer to the sharecropper’s son who had married his daughter Alberta and was in the process of changing his name from Mike to Martin Luther King.
According to Taylor Branch’s definitive history of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters, the man who would become known to one and all as “Daddy King” spent his first day as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist trying to remove a padlock from the doors. The banks had found the church to be in arrears, and the experience led the 34-year-old preacher to resolve that the social gospel wasn’t enough — that the church had to inhabit the daily life of its congregation as solidly as it inhabited its corner of Auburn Avenue. He vowed it would never be shut down again, and made good on his promise even when the sacrifices began.
Everybody knows about the first sacrifice, the one written in our history books, the one we mark today and on the third Monday of each American January. But the death — the murder — the assassination — the martyrdom — of Daddy King’s first son was also a death written in the church ledger. He was born Michael Luther King Jr., and was known as “Little Mike” until his father changed his name, as if the burden of pastoral primogeniture had not been burden enough. He was a boy transformed into a man by the agency of expectation, and though Martin Luther King Sr. embodied the clay-colored walls of his church, Martin Luther King Jr., by the exercise of his voice and the reach of his moral ambitions, erected its flying buttresses and its heaven-capped spire. By word and by deed, step after radical step, Little Mike made Ebenezer Baptist Church into America’s cathedral, and the hateful bullet that silenced him left untouched its invisible accoutrements. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death was the excruciating and irredeemable ending of a life. It was also the beginning both of his church’s symbolic splendor and his family’s sacrificial suffering, which culminated in 1974 when his mother — Daddy King’s wife, Alberta Williams King — was shot to death as she played the organ for Sunday service. Ebenezer was to the Kings as Hyannis Port was to the Kennedys, basic to their lives and fundamental to their story as an American family as subject to murder as they were to mortality — the tragic story that made Ebenezer our own. And yet despite that, because of that, it stayed open for business, song and prayer.
Now, like most churches, it is closed as a physical entity, and so is the new Ebenezer sanctuary, built of red brick in 1999 across the street. So is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the chapel on its grounds. So is the Martin Luther King Jr. historical birthplace. Though the flame still burns in front of the crypt containing the remains of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, the entire city block given over to joint federal and family stewardship of the King legacy has been shut down by the exigencies of COVID-19. On the day I visited, I was cold and wet and alone until I took one last peek through the doors of 407 Auburn and saw a woman through the glass, busy and going about her business. “America’s Freedom Church,” as Ebenezer calls itself, was closed. But the gift shop was open, and the woman I saw through the door was tending to its shelves while her son sat behind the counter.
His name was T. Her name was Amy, and she was slight, bespectacled and dressed to ward off the chill, in a beige knit sweater, brown woolen pants and a hat pulled down over her ears. Ebenezer had closed in March, along with everything else during the pandemic, and had only opened on two occasions since — for the funerals of Rayshard Brooks, slain by the Atlanta police, and of Congressman John Lewis. That ceremony was held in the new sanctuary, but only 50 people were allowed inside, including dignitaries and clergy. “I saw men outside weeping,” Amy said, “because they had known [Lewis] all their lives, and they still weren’t able to get in.”
I said I didn’t suppose I could look around the sanctuary, and she said, no, she had neither the authority nor the keys. But then she said, “Let me show you something,” and brought me out of the shop and face to face with a wall hung with two rows of framed photographs, all but one shot in black and white. There were five photos on the top, and three on the bottom, one of which was a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. “This church was founded in 1886, and there have only been five pastors,” she said. “And Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t one of them. He was one of the co-pastors.”
I looked at the color photo at the end of the top row and saw the face of Raphael Warnock, whom Georgia elected senator in a runoff on Jan. 5. But there had been many senators from Georgia since 1886 and only five pastors at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Amy, certain of which was the greater honor, said, “You know what most people ask when they’re looking at the picture of Rev. Warnock on this wall?”
“ ‘Who did he know?’ And do you know what I tell them? ‘He didn’t know anyone. He just filled out an application, like everyone else.’ ”
There is something else that the men whose photographs are on the wall have in common. They are gone. Daddy King’s second son, co-pastor A.D. King, drowned in the summer of 1969, 15 months after his brother had been shot on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Daddy King himself died in 1984 and his successor, Joe Roberts, in 2015, after retiring in 2005. I figured that Warnock was both the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and the last surviving pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church until I looked up one of the co-pastors, the one sharing the bottom row with Daddy King’s two boys, his two intended successors. His name was Otis Moss Jr. He was 85 years old, and living in Cleveland. I found the number for a landline later that afternoon, listened to the recorded message of his wife on what sounded like an answering machine, and left what I figured would be a futile message of my own.
A few hours later my phone rang and when I picked up I heard a voice whose tone and timbre identified the speaker with far more specificity than the number and location that had appeared in the window of my iPhone — a voice of unshakable gravity and unhurried pacing, the voice of a man who relished not only the holy word but the holy syllable and proclaimed, in his every utterance, that his dignity would not be assailed. “This is Dr. Moss,” he said, and before five minutes had passed he’d given me the words I had been looking for, the words that reconciled the plain face of Ebenezer Baptist with its exalted mission. When he had come to Atlanta’s Morehouse College in the 1950s, Moss had seen Ebenezer as “a citadel of prophetic ministry and leadership,” he said. “But you can’t grasp the meaning from the outside. You have to come inside the church to recognize and feel and experience the common touch, the kindness, the family spirit and great embrace that Ebenezer presents to its members and all others. It is understandable how people look at this place as a great citadel of history and heroism. But once you get inside, you see that Ebenezer is a family inseparable from the King family. And that is where the greatness of the church is found.”
He had come to Ebenezer in 1970, and stayed only a few years before he felt called to return to the church he had left in Cincinnati. But he had remained close to the Kings, and had helped officiate many of their funerals, beginning with Williams’ and including Coretta Scott King’s in 2006. His son, Otis Moss III, now a pastor at Trinity United in Chicago, went to college with Warnock. The former co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church has known the current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church since he was a young man, and sees connection rather than contradiction in Warnock’s journey from the temple where power has for so long been patiently resisted to the temple where it has for so long been unrelentingly amassed.
“The theological commitments of Rev. Warnock are entirely in keeping with the King tradition,” Moss told me. “We see this as a prophetic liberation ministry, civil rights and human rights conjoined with public service and political participation even to the extent of winning a seat in the United States Senate. Rev. Warnock has grown up in a tradition that teaches us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who would spitefully use you. That is the way of Jesus. That is the way of Mahatma Gandhi and that was what Martin Luther lived and worked and died for. The great thing is that Ebenezer Baptist Church remains a home for that kind of ministry, and once in a while — it doesn’t happen often — someone in that tradition seeks public office and is successful. Not often. But once in a while, you have a John Lewis, an Andy Young and now a Raphael Warnock.”
Pastor Senator-elect Warnock’s campaign headquarters sat just a block away from Ebenezer, and six days after his victory, I walked through the unlocked door to find a couple of workers cleaning up. I’d had no contact with the campaign or the transition team; I’d just dropped in, unannounced. But the two men told me Warnock’s director of communications was in the building, and in a few minutes Terrence Clark came down the stairs in a black puffer jacket and black workout pants and a mask. I told him I was surprised to run into him, and he said, “Well, someone has to move the furniture.”
I told him what I was writing about Ebenezer Baptist and the possibility of its resilience and hope finding a home in American politics, and he answered that his boss was unlikely to talk to me about it — he was too busy becoming a U.S. senator. But that wasn’t what I found myself wanting to talk to him about. I didn’t want to talk to him about Warnock’s schedule. I didn’t even want to talk to him about Warnock’s victory as much as I wanted to talk about my dizzying disbelief that he had actually won the election. After all, I had seen the ads. I was in so many ways the audience for the ads, and so every time I turned on the news or a football game I saw Warnock painted as a threat to democracy, the very essence of his prophetic ministry pointed against him in decontextualized snippets; his humanity unacknowledged, the dignity of his name replaced by his own Homeric epithet — “radical liberal Raphael Warnock.” Watching those ads, I became almost as angry at him as I was at his opponent, and sat on my couch asking the same question I now asked Clark: “Why didn’t he fight back? Why didn’t he call his opponents the radicals, and point out their efforts to invalidate the votes of their own constituents …”
“We talked about that,” Warnock’s unperturbed communications director said. “And he and his team remained resolute about one core principle. Remain the Reverend.”
It was what the Republicans didn’t and couldn’t see, their key strategic miscalculation, and maybe what I, in my stoked umbrage, didn’t see either. I had come to 407 Auburn Ave. in the hope that the fortifications of Ebenezer Baptist Church embodied Warnock. But I had missed something essential about the church, what Moss wound up telling me about, the power that was invisible to all those who didn’t step inside. Warnock embodied Ebenezer Baptist Church, every bit as much as the other way around, and when the Republicans came after him in those ad campaigns, they did something that turned out to be untenable in Georgia politics: as Jonathan Martin of the New York Times recounted an African American pastor saying on the morning after Warnock’s victory, “they came after the Black church.”
I am a white man, of boomer vintage, born and raised on Long Island, New York. Though a resident of the South for most of my adult life, I’ve gotten so much wrong, indeed so much completely upside down: for many years, “the Black church” was an abstraction to me, and “Black leadership” was a collective noun drawn not from the verb but rather from the adjective, a term that referred to the politicians and pastors and activists who aspired to lead Black people, and were inevitably found wanting comparison with Martin Luther King Jr. It was not until the last four years began to make me feel my political and moral soul at stake — my white soul at stake — that I began to turn to the example of the Black church and the lessons of Black leadership for hope and comfort … for leadership, period. The authoritarian future that I dreaded was but a soft version of the totalitarian past that African Americans had already survived and the tyrannical present that they still endure. I couldn’t simply learn how they did it because what I had to learn first was a truth glimpsed most clearly not in the “postracial” assurance of Barack Obama’s presidency but rather in the furious racial animus unleashed by the 45th: that white people must accept “Black leadership” as the salvific measure not for Black people but for them, and that we can only hope that Sen. Warnock will remain not only the reverend but also the radical.
The first day I visited Ebenezer, there was a single cruiser from the Atlanta Police Department parked at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Jackson Street. When I returned for a second look, there was nothing because there was nobody — nothing and nobody I could see, anyway. I had been told by the Atlanta police officer there was a federal agent in charge of the security of the entire King family complex. I had been told by Amy in the gift shop that I might not be able to see the law enforcement presence but the law enforcement presence could see me — they’re all around, she said. And then I had been told by security guards stationed by the crypt of Martin Luther King Jr. and the chapel that they’d gone to a meeting the night before where they’d been told that, in the light of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, they could expect security to be heightened from now on. But it hadn’t happened yet, and I felt some post-traumatic unease. I had watched the sacking of one temple of democracy and I didn’t want to witness another. Hadn’t anyone figured out that Ebenezer Baptist Church had been built in both the aftermath of mob violence and in anticipation of mob violence to come? Couldn’t anyone deduce that another rampaging horde might soon be out to violate the inviolable essence of this place? It didn’t matter if it stood as a citadel of prophetic ministry, as Moss said. Ebenezer, the stone of help, needed help, needed fortification and reinforcement …
I was about to talk again to the security guards outside the chapel when a man intercepted me on my path and asked me to walk out to the street with him. I followed, and when we reached the sidewalk the man turned and introduced himself to me as Sean Henderson, American Poet — the uppercase letters of his title all in the delivery. He was tall and thin, wearing a burgundy windbreaker and ski cap pulled down tight over his head. He was 59 years old and a traveler of lifelong standing who had just taken a bus from New Jersey to Atlanta because he had written a poem in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The poem wasn’t to Martin Luther King Jr. but rather about him; it was to Henderson’s young cousin, who had told him, back in New Jersey, that all he wanted out of life was to be cool. Did I want to hear it?
I did, I said. And then he introduced himself, once again, as Sean Henderson, American Poet, before singing like Homer for the next three minutes straight and delivering his own prophetic ministry. At three times the speed of Moss, he told me what Moss had told me; at twice the speed of Warnock, he told me what Warnock had told me and everybody else, which was that if we believed, really and truly, in all that was written in the Constitution, and all that was set down in the verses that implore us to do good unto one another, and all that Martin Luther King Jr. had written and said about the reserves of our strength and the depths of our promise, we were all going to make it, we were going to get through this. His poem, he said, was a gift — a gift intended to remind me of the gift I had already gotten — and when it was done, I didn’t have to ask how he had come to proclaim himself Sean Henderson, American Poet.
He had applied, like everyone else.