Martin Luther King, Jr's Legacy Thrives In His Hometown Church

Kristin Danley Greiner

Adam Daniel Williams, a senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, founded the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, setting forth a movement that would one day make history.

Williams served his church for 25 years, and eventually became father-in-law to none other than Martin Luther King, Sr., a man who would continue to lay the groundwork for civil rights. People have recalled a little boy who would climb onto a milk carton and sing in the choir at his dad's church – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, 50 years after King was assassinated in 1968, the activist spirit that bloomed at Ebenezer Baptist Church carries on thanks to Rev. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock. He's the fifth and youngest senior pastor in the church's history and has led the flock there for 14 years, according to People. He knows he plays an incredibly vital role in making sure King's legacy lives on.

"Martin Luther King Jr. was a spiritual genius, a social change agent and part of the black church tradition," Warnock told People. "I stand in the long legacy of trying to continue that work."

Since he became senior pastor in 2005, the congregation has more than doubled in size and now exceeds 4,000 members. The reverend attributes part of that growth to the church's ability to attract millennials through civic activism. Church leaders recruit even those who "are naturally suspicious of institutions, including the church," he said.

Two years ago, the church also partnered with Fulton County officials to spearhead the county's first ever "Record Restriction Summit." There, 75 percent of those who attended had their arrest records cleared.

In honor of Father's Day, the reverend and others provided bail for people awaiting trial.

"We are a politically progressive church. And I don't mean partisan politics, but what public policy ought to look like for the disenfranchised," he said.

Warnock will be working with Auburn Seminary and The Temple, along with a few other groups, to launch a nationwide interfaith response to mass incarceration. They will gather in Atlanta, Georgia, to educate themselves about expungement and what else they can do to curb and prevent mass incarceration.

"I see this as the most obvious body of work that is an extension of Dr. King's work," Warnock said. "The tragic irony of the moment is that all the forms of discrimination that Dr. King fought and died to dismantle are inscribed 50 years later within the context of the criminal justice system."

Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson testified that Warnock is truly carrying on King's legacy through more than just activism. Dyson authored the book, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.

"His father's variety of preaching was deeply emotional, and Martin Luther King Jr. was a far cooler customer," Dyson told People. "He was quite suspicious of religious belief and practices in the black church until he went to college at 15."

At Morehouse, King realized that "you could be intellectually respectable and a preacher at the same time," Dyson said.

"The present minister there upholds nobly and ably a learned, erudite pastorate," Dyson said. "That church continues to be a beacon to those who look toward the black church for leadership."