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.”