MLK Jr. after 40 years: a Fraternal Memoir

Michael Haynes is my touchstone of the abiding power and fascination and the profound earthly-heavenly mystery around Martin Luther King Jr. In 1951 Haynes and King broke in together as apprentice preachers at the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, and they stayed in close touch until King’s assassination 40 years ago, come April 4. Haynes is greatly under-cited in the King biographies, it seems to me. In our conversation Haynes makes a lively, loving witness on Martin, the young Ph.D. student, asking: “Where are the girls that would set my heart on fire,” until the church secretary introduced him to Coretta Scott at the New England Conservatory. But Haynes was also intimately connected with the man who knew, at the end, that his days — maybe his hours — were numbered, and who embraced his destiny in defiance of “longevity,” in submission to God’s will, with an open willingness to lay down his life to cure a cancer on American life. “The highest and deepest and best of the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ had permeated this man,” Haynes says.

When these two young public theologians met, King, at 22, was the designated heir of an Atlanta church dynasty, just entering doctoral studies at Boston University. Haynes, the son of Barbadian immigrants and the brother of “Charlie Parker’s favorite drummer,” Roy Haynes, was a year and a half older than King and still in seminary. In 1951 he was the minister to youth at Boston’s oldest, most established black church, with Beacon Hill roots back to 1805. Big-league baseball had just been integrated but the black-rights movement was embryonic when Haynes first encountered King, and I’ve often wondered where this pre-civil rights generation got their defining assurance that things could change, things must change. They found it in each other.

He had grown up, Haynes remembers, with a “burning awareness that a cancer was eating at America. I think for any black, North or South — realizing there were strictures, there were limitations, that we’re still being kept out and separated — there was something grossly wrong with that separation, and these walls, these barriers needed to be broken down. I think a lot of young leaders, probably including myself, were waiting for God to appoint a Moses. The time was just right, and Martin was that man who was going to lead us to a promised land… It’s tragic when a body has a cancer and doesn’t know it… Dr. King made that diagnosis very clear to America.”

In 1953 King invited Haynes to join him in ministry and struggle in Montgomery, Alabama, but Haynes stayed in Boston, to win election to the Massachusetts Legislature and to pastor the Twelfth Baptist Church for more than 40 years.

Rev. Michael E. Haynes

Rev. Michael E. Haynes

For almost half that span, I have been his blessed and grateful parishioner. I make an inadequate note in this conversation that on the enflamed subject of religion in American life these days, the amazing grace of African-American church life is a vastly underrated treasure. The Haynes example at Twelfth Baptist is a Christianity that is Scriptural but not literal; faith-based but never fantastical; community-rooted and bathed in black history and black culture but never provincial or tribal; socially activist but not partisan, much less ideological; moral but not moralistic. Barack Obama in his King Day speech showed himself as an apt child of the church and its preaching tradition. Typical of Haynes’ delicate balances is the line he quotes to me here: “God forbid we should get so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.” But on the subject of Dr. King, the special joy of listening to Haynes comes in hearing not balance but the seamless fusion of their spiritual and political imaginations — of radical Christ-centeredness and the nth degree of tough-minded love and courage.

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  • nother

    Thank you for the interview with The Reverend Michael Haynes, he is an amazing individual. His eyes have seen so much and it was enlightening to be given his perspective at the convergence of race, faith, politics, class, jazz, and immigration. Race and faith with MLK, politics and class as a state legislator, jazz as the brother to the legendary drummer Roy Haynes, and immigration as the son of immigrants.

    And I love how he connects MLK and Barack Obama. He was a confidant of MLK, and a preacher, and a civil rights activist. And he had immigrant parents similar to Obama (whose father hailed form Kenya), and he chose to work on civil rights from the inside (politics), something MLK encouraged, and something Senator Obama is taking to the next level.

  • nother

    One more convergence:

    On The Importance of Jazz

    – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Opening Address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival

    “For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

    In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”

  • nother

    “It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.” – Barack Obama

    I was standing close to Senator Obama as he sang those words in the climax of his concession speech in New Hampshire. I will never forget it. When he evoked Suffrage I felt a rush of elation, and then as he finished the sentence I felt something else.

    I was not alive for MLK; my generation has grown up in his wake. I was educated in a vacuum of languid disillusionment that has permeated the void he (and the fallen Kennedys) left a whole country with PTSD. The symptom was to immediately relegate him to nostalgia. You see I was taught that MLK was a great man who had accomplished an amazing feat, and we should all be thankful for it. What Barack Obama reminds us and what MLK tells us (if we listen to him and not our teachers) is that the mission was far from accomplished. MLK could only point us in the right direction, he could only take us to the water, he couldn’t make us drink. As he ends his last speech on his last day in our midst, he bellows out his last words and falls back toward a chair behind him, his arms and body go limp…they can crucify him now, he has said his seven words, and we must do the rest.

    So when Senator Obama spoke of the King and the mountaintop, for the first time in my life, Martin Luther King Jr. jumped off the pages of my high school history books and into “the fierce urgency of now.” (MLK’s words) I was bearing witness to the fruits of his labor all those years ago…his spirit was in that room, and all at once I believed in that promised land he pointed us to.

    We have been telling ourselves we had already reached that land (at least the white people conveniently have), but oh no my friends, it’s not that easy. MLK is not the only one that’s gonna have to sacrifice for this. Prepare yourselves for a harsh dwindling of Anglo hegemony.

  • Potter

    Chris says above:

    “I make an inadequate note in this conversation that on the enflamed subject of religion in American life these days, the amazing grace of African-American church life is a vastly underrated treasure.”

    Chris- I read that after I had listened to this interview. I came here to post specifically that it was that observation and insight that you made in the interview that stood out for me.

    Of course there is much more to say about MLK and how way ahead he was of the times and still is today.

    I read and have still a copy of his ” TheTrumpet of Conscience”- which made quite a mark on me years ago.

    Somehow this year MLK’s birthday seemed more meaningful–haven’t figured out why.