It is hard to remember how controversial the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. was during his life. Gurdon Brewster, an Episcopal ordinand-in-training from Union Seminary in New York, was told that to work with King during that summer of 1961 would guarantee he would never be a bishop. Brewster did just fine for himself—he was a chaplain at Cornell University for most of his career. But not many bishops have stories like this to tell.
As the subtitle of Brewster’s No Turning Back suggests, the book is more properly about Martin Luther King Sr.—“Daddy King,” as everyone called him—father of “ML” and senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Brewster interned. ML appears in the book occasionally as a celestial figure dropped in to offer sage advice before disappearing for the next march or rally.
When Daddy King got sick one morning, Brewster took over in the kitchen and learned to make grits to Daddy’s satisfaction. ML himself introduced Brewster to “trotters,” or pigs’ feet. The book’s most intimate moments are of Brewster asking after Daddy’s upbringing, hearing stories about the mother who took up for her son against their racist white landowner, the teacher who taught him there was a bigger world than sharecropping in Georgia, and the sheer doggedness to return to school and squeeze into a desk as a grown man alongside fifth-graders. He would eventually marry the daughter of the senior minister of Ebenezer—for whom a college degree was insufficient!—and pastor the great church himself. Late in his life, having survived the murder of his son and wife, King accepted a rare speaking invitation to Cornell, where he said he could have lost more: “I could have turned into a man of hate.”
BREWSTER’S FIRST sermon came during the first service he attended at Ebenezer: King summoned him to preach without prior warning. Much of that summer consisted of Brewster learning firsthand about white-only restrooms, lunch counters, and “public” pools. Twice he was cornered in parking lots by thugs intent on violence against an agitating “nigger lover” from the North. He tried valiantly to organize a multiracial conference of youth groups so kids could hear from each others’ experiences firsthand. Some of the book’s most sadly hilarious moments are of Episcopal priests turning him away, counseling “patience” on the “race issue” while sipping brandy amidst wood-paneled walls. At one of ML’s own conferences on reconciliation, Brewster was confronted by an angry young man who showed him the scars on his back and asked him to leave. A 93-year-old black woman defended Brewster’s presence there and welcomed him to “the beloved community.”
Ebenezer Baptist Church itself was the heart of that community. As in any church, the secretaries, Lillian Watkins and Sarah Reed, knew the church’s real dirt and its real glory. They introduced him to Mother Clayton, the “conscience” of the church. All the other women watched to see how much money she would put in the offering plate. If a lot, they would follow. If not …. She was the only one who could put the reverend in his place, Lillian said.
Reed compared ML’s preaching unfavorably with his father’s, since few people responded to ML’s altar calls: “Nowadays preachers are all philosophers. When I was a girl, preachers could preach and bring people in.” They informed Brewster that when the preaching got really good, wigs would start flying (they never did for Brewster or ML, only for Daddy). Watkins soothed a baby one day and reminisced about comforting ML the same way: “I would rock him and sing to him for hours. I must have sung God’s music right into his soul.”
And isn’t the church throughout the world glad she did? Brewster learned more than Southern cooking that summer—he also learned Southern storytelling, and these pages fly.
Jason Byassee is assistant editor of The Christian Century.