Faithful and Reforming

August 1961: M. L. King and Lutherans Divided

August, for many Americans, will always be associated with the sainted Martin Luther King, Jr. In August 1963 his “I Have a Dream” speech at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial captivated millions. Exactly two years earlier, King addressed 14,000 young Lutherans at the first Luther League Convention of The American Lutheran Church (ALC).

“To supporters, King was a prophetic reformer, a courageous churchman pursuing much-needed social change nonviolently. To dissenters, he was at best a radical agitator; at worst a Communist infiltrator.”

To many in the newly formed ALC, King wore no saintly aura. Several months earlier, when it was announced that he’d speak to Lutheran youth in Miami Beach, Florida, the young Lutheran denomination was torn by division.

Photo provided by Charles P. Lutz. The Rev. Fred Gonnerman (left) and Charles Lutz both worked in communication at the 1961 Luther League convention of The American Lutheran Church. Gonnerman, a young pastor in Ohio, edited the convention daily. Lutz, based in Minneapolis, was editing the church’s youth magazine One. Lutz edited Metro Lutheran 1989-1996; Gonnerman served on the newspaper’s board 1990-2002.“August 1961."

The nation first heard of King just five years earlier. A Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama, not yet 27, he emerged as leader of a bus boycott by what some considered “uppity” African Americans.(This writer heard about King when a recent graduate of the seminary I attended — Capital, now Trinity Lutheran, in Columbus, Ohio — came to tell us about Montgomery’s protest movement. He was Bob Graetz, Montgomery’s sole white clergyperson supporting the boycott.)

In the half-decade following the Montgomery action, King strode the national stage as leader of what became the Civil Rights Movement. It was a time of major social unrest, with the quest for racial justice and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading the way. His work for racial integration was cloaked in controversy. To supporters, King was a prophetic reformer, a courageous churchman pursuing much-needed social change nonviolently. To dissenters, he was at best a radical agitator; at worst a Communist infiltrator.

The ALC’s 18 regional bishops (then “district presidents”) met to discuss the churchly ferment. They weren’t opposed to racial reconciliation, but had deep concerns about division in the young church body. They agreed unanimously: “[F]or the peace of the church” the youth division should withdraw the King invitation.

Their urgent plea reached the ALC national office in Minneapolis. The national president, Fredrik Schiotz, told the youth board he disagreed with the district leaders, and said the invitation for King to speak should stand. The youth board agreed.

Then, just months before the August convention, Dr. King sent word of his withdrawal from the convention program. He’d learned of the ALC distress and said he did not wish to be the cause of division in our church.

At that point King was based in Atlanta, and off to meet with him there went the Rev. L. David Brown, ALC youth director. Brown was able to persuade the civil rights leader to stay as a scheduled youth convention speaker.

But that didn’t end the controversy:

Some congregations decided their youth would not spend August 15-20 in Miami Beach. Enough did come to make the total of 14,000 Leaguers and accompanying adults the largest Lutheran youth assembly ever in North America to that point.

What did King tell them? The convention theme was “Christ Is Living” and King addressed “Christ Living in the World.” He asked Leaguers living in an unjust world to be “proudly maladjusted.” He said the fundamental need for youth of the church is to share God’s love when facing societal injustice.

King spoke on the convention’s second day. Later that day he joined a panel addressing Leaguers’ questions about racial justice. Among the panelists: Bob Graetz, the white pastor who’d worked with King in Montgomery; Pr. Joe Bash, a youth staffer; and Don Luther, a Leaguer whom that convention elected to a three-year term as president.

(Luther entered Luther Seminary, St. Paul, a few weeks later. He then served pastorates in Michigan and Ohio, returning to Minnesota for his final parish call — Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, Minneapolis, 1979-2001.)

ALC unrest over the King invitation basically died once the convention was over. Controversy stirred by its youth division did not. The youth board, chaired by Pr. David Preus, who pastored at University Lutheran Church of Hope, Minneapolis, and later became ALC presiding bishop, believed — along with the youth staff — that God was calling them to provide prophetic leadership in the tumultuous ‘60s on church/society agendas. Not just for young people, but for the entire church!

It all began when Minnesotans asked a young African-American preacher to speak to young Lutherans in Florida one August day.

Charles P. Lutz is editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran. He was a long-time lay employee of The American Lutheran Church, and then the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He and his wife Hertha, who gave birth to their third child as Charles was returning from the Luther League convention, are members at Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, ELCA, in Minneapolis. (Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”)

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