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MLK Was a Man, Not Just an Icon

BU classmates, friends recall University’s most famous alum

Rev. Bobby McClain preaching during a service

The Rev. William “Bobby” McClain (STH’62) was a teenage preacher when Martin Luther King, Jr., first inspired him in the 1950s; he went on to a career of activism and pastorship. Photo courtesy of McClain


One year out of the School of Theology, the Rev. William Bobby McClain (STH’62,’77) was traveling with four fellow African American ministers, en route to Birmingham, Ala., when they came upon the sign at Adams Gas. It was 1963, and they were out of gas and up to their necks in Jim Crow bigotry. The five debated who should try to coax the station’s owner to let them buy gas.

The short straw fell to another BU alum, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59).

As McClain recalls it, King turned to another passenger who made history in the civil rights movement, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. “Ralph,” he said, “why don’t you go in there and ask Mr. Adams to sell us some gas? If I go, the leader of the movement will be dead.” King was joking—he went himself and somehow managed to get the gas, amid a menacing group of “white hoodlums” who had gathered to watch, McClain says.

The public would be unsurprised by the courage of King, who was arrested and assaulted numerous times for his civil rights activism. Less familiar is the humor he deployed even in tense moments, frequently observed by intimates like McClain, who first met King in the late 1950s as a teenage Methodist preacher on the campus of Alabama State College. Then pastor of nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King had propped himself up against a jukebox in the student recreation room as it played: If I don’t love you, baby, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man. The lyrics of love, McClain says, clashed with the “youthful, self-righteous, condemning judgment” of an upcoming sermon he had prepared.

After reading the sermon, McClain recalls, King “launched into a lecture quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, Shakespeare, Plato, and others to convince me about the importance of the song.” King won a follower that day, and McClain would follow him all the way, until he was assassinated in Memphis, 50 years ago tomorrow.

He learned of King’s murder on the radio as he was driving to address a civil rights rally in Anniston, Ala., his home state. He had to pull off the road. “After I got myself together and wiped away my tears,” he says, “I knew that my speech that night would be a different one, and from then on, I would have to refer to Dr. King in the past.”

McClain would pastor churches in Alabama and Boston over his career and in 1970 helped organize the nation’s first memorial breakfast to King. One of those who marched for civil rights, he’s of a generation that is aging and fading, dwindling the number who knew King personally. For them, the anniversary of his death occasions mixed emotions: sorrow at what might have been and about King’s too-early death, one year before completing his fourth decade, pride in what they achieved together dismantling American apartheid, and a smile remembering a man who’d josh about a substitute seeking gas from a racist station owner.

Rev. Gil Caldwell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Ralph Abernathy lead a march to Boston Common to protest segregation in schools, April 23, 1965.

The Rev. Gil Caldwell (STH’58) (left) stands next to Martin Luther King, Jr., during a 1965 rally against segregation in Boston public schools. AP Photo

When the Rev. Gil Caldwell was born, even exiting his mother’s womb was controlled by Jim Crow.

Caldwell (STH’58) entered the world in a segregated hospital in Greensboro, N.C., in 1933, the first of many segregations constricting his life. His neighborhood was segregated, his schools were segregated, and he was denied admission to segregated Duke Divinity School. BU’s School of Theology was not segregated, and never had been, and it accepted Caldwell to its Class of 1958, three years after Boston University’s most prominent alumnus had graduated.

As STH student vice president, Caldwell enticed King to speak at his alma mater in 1958, after the latter had rocketed to fame for leading the desegregation of city buses in Montgomery, Ala. Caldwell relaxed with King after that talk, and he recalls a man who, “unlike some charismatic persons I have known, left his charisma in the pulpit. He listened as others spoke, with an appreciation for what we were asking or saying. He had a gentle sense of humor. He was not preachy.… You felt he was comfortable in his own skin because he acknowledged his own shortcomings.”

Caldwell enlisted in the Civil Rights Movement, directly influenced by King. He heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and marched with him in the 1965 Selma protests for black voting rights. He also introduced King at a 1965 rally on Boston Common protesting the segregation of Boston’s public schools.

Indirectly, King’s risking unpopularity to challenge bigotry found parallels in Caldwell’s ministry. When the latter continued his advocacy as a district superintendent for Methodist churches in Boston, “some of the white clergy…complained about my activism,” he says, prompting him to leave the post 18 months into his six-year term. Decades later, in 2000, he was arrested twice for protesting his church’s anti-LGBTQ policies—a cause he embraced after a priest he admired came out in the 1970s, but which alienated some of his civil rights allies.

Caldwell was in Chicago at a meeting of African American clergy when news of King’s death reached them. “We prayed” on hearing the news, he recalls, “and as we prayed, we heard the noise of police cars as they rushed to places where fires were burning.” The assassination had sparked riots across the country.

Amid the grief and chaos, Caldwell did what he’d studied to do, and what King had done: minister in the cause of nonviolence. “I flew home to Boston, and the next night, I and other clergy, black and white, sought to restore peace to Blue Hill Avenue and beyond.” Over the course of his ministry, he’d serve four white churches and five black ones, embodying the integration he marched for.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Rev. David Bridell and Wife on Boston Common in the 1950's while students at Boston University School of Theology

The Rev. David Briddell (STH’58) befriended Martin Luther King, Jr., while both were at BU in the 1950s; above, the men and their wives at the Boston Public Garden during their student days. Photo courtesy of Briddell

When the Rev. David Briddell (STH’55) was a School of Theology student, he joined the Dialectical Society, organized by fellow BU student MLK for black students to meet monthly and discuss issues from papers to politics.

“Most of the students lived in a dormitory. Martin had an apartment, a green Chevrolet, and was always extremely well-dressed,” but without superior airs, Briddell says. At Dialectical Society get-togethers, he recalls, King was lighthearted when the discussion called for it, but would switch quickly to being serious when racial discrimination crept into the conversation.

After graduation, Briddell pastored churches in Maryland and Philadelphia before joining Global Ministries, a Methodist justice and peace group. While with the group, he produced Let the Church Say Amen, a documentary about black churches in the Civil Rights Movement.

This diverse career, he says, owes in part to his time at BU with King, which “enabled me to see when opportunities were presented for me to minister beyond the pulpit—to the world.”

Briddell got a taste of King’s optimistic humor during one Dialectical Society meeting. King, fresh from a trip back South, announced, “Well, boys, I had a big funeral last weekend. We buried Jim!”

“Jim who?” asked his friends. “Jim Crow,” King said. Briddell says King was predicting the demise of racist laws, even though they remained very much alive in the 1950s. “In announcing its death before it actually occurred,” Briddell says, “it no longer had power over him.”

Two years after King graduated from BU, in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he predicted that the struggle for equal rights “might even cause physical death for some. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing can be more Christian.”

News that King had paid that Christian price reached Briddell as he attended an Atlanta meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose first president was MLK. “At the evening session,” he says, “it was announced that Martin had been killed in Memphis.” The next morning, as Briddell walked through the Atlanta airport to catch a flight home to New York, “I saw the casket carrying Dr. King’s body being unloaded” from a plane “and wheeled into the airport.” (King, a native of Atlanta, is buried there.)

“It was a heart-wrenching moment,” Briddell says of seeing his classmate’s body go past him. “But I was able to say goodbye to my very special friend.”

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments on MLK Was a Man, Not Just an Icon

  • Donald E.Denniston on 04.03.2018 at 8:47 am

    Of the last photograph with MLK and Coretta Scott King/Rev David Briddell and his wife: The background is not the Boston Common but the Boston Public Garden (founded 1837)

  • Rich Barlow, BU Today on 04.03.2018 at 9:24 am

    Thanks for alerting us–the caption has been corrected.

  • Donald E.Denniston on 04.03.2018 at 9:48 am

    Thank you!

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