One Sunday evening in 1967, a bright-eyed 17-year-old student at Spelman College walked inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and looked squarely into the eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he extended the right hand of fellowship—a traditional gesture of Baptist church membership.
With this gesture, Martin Luther King Jr. and his father—a man everyone affectionately called “Daddy” King—officially became pastors of Rev. Jacquelyn Hawkins. Hawkins recalled how that long-ago moment changed her life.
“I remember that night very vividly. My classmates and I at Spelman were standing there and Dr. King stood next to me and offered his hand. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ and I was immediately struck by two things,” Hawkins said. “One was that he was so short in stature that I could eyeball him. The second was that he was such a humble man. He was not unapproachable, and I could actually feel the warmth and genuine compassion coming from him.
“Here was this international figure who led the march on Washington and won the Nobel Peace Prize, yet he was so humble that he looked me right in the eyes with genuine warmth. When I first saw his face, I knew he was a man of deep spiritual conviction and love,” Hawkins added.
From then on, Hawkins realized she had a personal obligation to do her best because Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified such greatness.
Hawkins herself was no stranger to the Civil Rights Movement.
Her father, Rev. E. C. Hawkins, was a leader in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Longview, Texas. Hawkins witnessed her father’s many sit-ins at area lunch counters and countless marches.
“I knew it was dangerous to be in the movement,” said Hawkins. “I was afraid for my father and my older brother who marched alongside of him. We knew that people had been killed because they broke the unwritten rule of “stay in your place” or dared to go into segregated places. I saw how the white establishment treated him and his fellow clergymen. But, my father, like Dr. King, showed me the importance of loving your enemies. Above all, they preached the word of love.”
Hawkins would personally hear close to 15 of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons at Ebenezer.
“Every cell in my body would come alive when he spoke. Dynamic doesn’t even describe him. He was such a powerful orator and his command of the material was unquestionable. He wrote all of his sermons, and when he delivered them he gave his all,” Hawkins said. “Coaches often tell their football players to leave nothing on the field. Well, that was how Dr. King was. There was nothing left unsaid because he gave his all in the pulpit. He poured out his heart every single time. By the middle of his sermon, people were always up on their feet and by the end they were shouting and hand-clapping. He raised that type of excitement each and every time, and by the time he finished, both he and the members were exhausted and exhilarated.”
At Ebenezer, Daddy King and Dr. King rarely spoke directly about civil rights in the Sunday morning service, but there was an unspoken understanding that the movement was heavy on their hearts, and equality for blacks and other disenfranchised people should be on the minds of the congregation as well.
“Dr. King and his family wanted people to know that the Civil Rights Movement was really all about love—people loving their fellow man. He would say that this was a spiritual movement, not just a Civil Rights movement,” said Hawkins.
On April 4, 1968, Hawkins was in her dorm room at Spelman when the news broke that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis. “I didn’t believe it at first. It wasn’t until our housemother called us all downstairs that I knew it was true. There was a lot of crying, hugging, and hysteria,” Hawkins said. “We were immediately put on lockdown because of the possibility of violence. Atlanta was his home, so there was this fear.”
The last time Hawkins saw Martin Luther King Jr. was in a coffin as his body was brought home to Sisters Chapel at Spelman. Hawkins recalls a “sea” of people at the funeral, including celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world.
Although Martin Luther King Jr. has been laid to rest, his vision continues for Hawkins and others.
“One of the refrains from a song Dr. King loved was that my living will not be in vain. He lived that. So my desire is that, as I move forward in this ministry that my living will not be in vain, meaning that I will live a life of faith and contribute to uplifting people and their consciousness with the understanding that we are all here to love and help one another,” Hawkins said. “By doing this, I not only honor Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, I honor my father; I honor myself.”