Local Pastor’s Speech on Martin Luther King, Jr. Stresses Having Courage, Mastering Fears, and Overcoming Oppression

by J. Russell Tyldesley

“Today kids don’t want to read,” says Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church. “There is a ‘dumbing down’ in our culture and it is acute in some African-American communities, although it is a much wider trend.”

Well over 100 people heard Reverend Frank M. Reid III deliver a lecture on “the authentic Martin Luther King, Jr.” at the Pratt Library on Saturday, January 11.

Dr. Reid is senior pastor of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore. Under his leadership, Bethel’s congregation has grown to over 15,000 members. Reid can be seen weekly on a BET channel show, “The Outreach of Love,” and he is the author of numerous books, videos, and CDs.

Reid’s church maintains 40 ministries and calls his main focus “rebuilding communities.” He was introduced by Pratt Library director Karla Hayden. In his opening remarks, he credited the Pratt system as one of the most important, historic libraries in the country. He praised Dr. Hayden for her work and her appointment as president of the American Library Association.

The theme of Reid’s talk was, “The courage to be the best.” He described the late Dr. King as one of the most important and, at the same time, one of the most vilified heroes of the 20th Century. He mentioned the hundreds of books written about King, and predicted that thousands more are yet to be written.

Reid admitted that in the 1970’s and 1980’s, he himself had a love-hate relationship with King. In better understanding King’s legacy, however, he said he has come to appreciate the essence of King: he was an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things.

In addition to the ongoing effort to “deconstruct” King, Reid mentioned the current tendency of “post-King babies” to denigrate King’s memory. He was especially critical of rappers and hip-hop musicians who represent a generation in the entertainment field suffering from “spiritual and physical addictions,” as he put it. He decried our era that seems no longer dedicated to seeking justice for the poor. He pointed to the need for education and activism.

Reid expressed intolerance for the current situation in Baltimore—with kids dropping out of school, where health care is the privilege of the rich and middle class, college is priced out of range for the poor, and the world still faces nuclear annihilation.

Turning to the legacy of Dr. King, Reid tried to identify the elements of King’s life that can be used today to enrich our lives. He emphasized the overwhelming importance of King’s parents, who raised young Martin to have a love of learning and a disciplined life. Reid noted that historically, and to a degree today, African Americans have had to be “100 percent better than white folks” to succeed.

King’s parents, said Reid, gave him the legacy of “somebodiness.” They prepared him for greatness and focused on instilling values and using education to “break the bonds of the past of an oppressed people.”

Reid recommended that parents become educated so they can reinforce what their children are learning in school. In King’s case, the influence of Morehouse College was another key factor in his development. Under the leadership of Dr. Benjamin Mayes, Morehouse taught a curriculum that stressed values, and had an expectation for every student that they assume leadership roles following graduation. Segregation was not an excuse. Mayes told his students, “It is not how long you live that matters, but how well you live. The mind is the standard of the man.”

Martin Luther King was inspired at Morehouse, and held to these bedrock principles through death threats and all the stresses attendant to leadership. King said about his situation, “Courage faces fear and thereby masters it.”

Reid placed Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same class with historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, all of whom he called “freedom fighters.” He prescribed three essential principles for a successful life, all of which come from the examples of these great African-American leaders.

1. “Believe that you were born to be the best. Stand against oppression.”

2. “Be disciplined.” Reid talked of his own experience growing up in a house with parents who had high expectations for their children. His father told him “readers are leaders.” He was reading at age two and a half, and remains an avid reader. He said, “Whatever you spend most time doing, that is what you will be best at.”

3. “You must be conscious that present-day society will try to destroy a person’s self confidence.” He said today’s prisons are an example. “It used to be that prisons were a place of reform and correction. Today they are warehouses and succeed only in turning people hard.”

Reid said he is a strong believer in technology and sees great potential in the internet as a teaching tool, and a way to inform and connect people. In his final remarks he admonished that to be a leader, one must accept that failure is possible—“Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this well.”

A question and answer period of nearly a half hour followed the formal program. In answer to a question about the effectiveness of the “Believe” program created by Mayor Martin O’Malley, Reid said he felt that the objectives were sound, but that change must come from inside the community, not from outside. He contrasted neighborhoods today with those in the 60’s when he grew up. There were drugs then—the drug of choice was heroin. However, the drug pushers in those times “knew their place,” he asserted, and a law-abiding citizen could still leave the door to his house unlocked, and you could walk the streets in safety. He marks the change for the worse to when the drug crack cocaine appeared on the scene. “Crack is such a bad drug that it has even broken the bond between mother and child which, historically, was unshakable in the African American communities,” he pointed out.

Reid talked about the civil rights era of the 1960’s. He said that many in the black community got too caught up in their anger and that allowed the police to turn groups against each other. He suspects that this sort of divide-and-conquer strategy has not been totally eliminated, though he would not identify any particular group. “There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation being spread—a lot of wrong ideas.”

The role that the church can play, he said, cannot be underestimated. Reid believes that Dr. King was most feared by the established authorities because he began waking up “the sleeping giant” that was the Christian church.

One question from the audience seemed to suggest that there are elements in society today that could provoke a race war, brought about by neglect and failed policies toward the cities. Reid did not disagree that this country may at some point re-visit “a type of civil war,” but he said he feels it woul be a class war—the rich against the poor. As an example, he noted that Johns Hopkins is considered by many to be the greatest hospital in the world—people from all over the world come there for treatment. But, right here in Baltimore the condition of public health is deplorable. Reid predicted that very soon people without health insurance will not be able to get treatment, even in hospital emergency rooms.

Someone asked Reid how he thought Martin Luther King, Jr. would have reacted to the rush to war with Iraq, as well as to the situation in N. Korea, famine in Africa and the AIDS pandemic. Reid said that Dr. King’s answer might have been an admonition to pursue peace, not war.

King, he said, would have reminded that it takes a conscious decision to go to war and to neglect social problems: “There is a connection between war and declining social services.”

Reid said there is an “economic depression” on Wall Street which accounts for the fact that foundation grants have declined. Without gains on Wall Street, he pointed out, there is no need for the tax shelters afforded by charitable contributions.

In speaking to the 9/11 disaster, Reid referred to the Bible, which warns of principalities and powers that will “strip you of your faith, destroy your economics, and turn you against each other.” He pointed again to the general decline in morality and the increasing tolerance for unspeakable acts. “The bar has been lowered,” he said, “and the old standards of morality and respect are not holding. The community must come together and agree that there are certain things that cannot be tolerated.”

Reid returned to a frequent theme of contrasting the low quality of television and popular music of today with the generally positive message he received as he was growing up, listening to the Persuasions and Marvin Gay. The messages today are often destructive and demonize learning, he said. “Knowledge is power,” he reminded, using the example of Frederick Douglass, who was almost beaten to death because he had learned to read.

“Today kids don’t want to read,” he said. “There is a ‘dumbing down’ in our culture and it is acute in some African-American communities, although it is a much wider trend.” He bemoaned the loss of a work ethic and said, “An empty head leads to an empty life.”

He referred to Africa as being “the richest of lands” and having everything the world needs. “We need to reach back across the ocean and reclaim what we have los,” he said.

Reid applauded a new newspaper called Kid’s Scoop published by Baltimore Youth Communications/ Cultural Center, Inc., involving Baltimore school children working with volunteer adult mentors. It is distributed to schools and churches; 40,000 copies of the Nov./Dec. edition were printed.

Russell Tyldesley, a semi-retired insurance executive, writes from Catonsville.

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This story was published on February 10, 2003.