A new video from EthicsDaily.com features memories of Martin Luther King Jr.’s appearance at a white Baptist seminary in the early 1960s.
“I remember being excited when we were told that Dr. Martin Luther King would be the chapel speaker,” says Norma Baker Gabhart in the new five-minute segment. Baker Gabhart is a member of Nashville’s First Baptist Church and a retired psychology professor from Belmont University.
She was on staff at the Carver School of Missions and Social Work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., when King was invited to speak in chapel in April 1961. That was after the Montgomery Bus Boycott but before major clashes in Birmingham and Selma, Ala.
“I think I did know that Dr. King was probably going to be recognized as maybe, if not the leader, a leader certainly, in the struggle for civil rights,” says Baker Gabhart.
Southern Seminary’s decision to invite King was controversial at the time.
King’s chapel address lasted nearly 50 minutes.
“It certainly did emphasize that we were all loved by God, and under the skin we were the same,” Baker Gabhart recalls. “I felt like I was maybe on the very edge of history that was in the making at that time.”
The segment includes a brief excerpt from King’s speech and a photo showing the civil rights leader with some of the seminary officials who invited him.
The segment also includes some of Baker Gabhart’s recollections about her own upbringing and how it figured into her intersection with King that day in April 1961.
“I’m sure I was carried to church before I could walk,” says Baker Gabhart, who grew up in Cassville, Mo., a small town in the southwestern corner of the state.
“I grew up really in an all-white community, not knowing that maybe I should branch out a little bit,” she says. “I was taught that all of us were equal, but I really didn’t have any opportunity to demonstrate that.”
She studied English literature and psychology at Oklahoma Baptist University. After graduating and working in a local church for a couple of years, she moved to Louisville and enrolled at the Carver School at Southern.
She says she went to Carver assuming she would be called to the mission field because “if you were a man you could be a pastor and if you were a woman you could be a missionary.”
“I probably assumed that I’d have a scroll rolling down from heaven showing me where I was supposed to serve as a missionary,” she says. “That didn’t quite happen.”
“The day I heard Dr. King in chapel at Southern Baptist Seminary was very different from the day I heard of his death,” says Baker Gabhart, who was teaching at Belmont University in 1968 when King was shot in Memphis. “There had been so much movement in the meantime that I felt was positive, that was changing attitudes.”
“But as I look back at his death and where we are now,” she says, “I easily recognize we have an awfully long way yet to go.”
Baker Gabhart earned her doctorate in social psychology from George Peabody College and joined Belmont’s faculty in 1966. She retired from full-time teaching in 1994.
The occasion of King’s appearance at Southern Seminary is explored in EthicsDaily.com’s documentary “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,” which won Best Documentary at the International Black Film Festival of Nashville in 2008.