on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

A New Freedom

This is the eighth in a series on My Personal Faith Journey.

On the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on January 17, 2011, it is a time to remember and a time to rekindle his dreams.

I am also reminded of my faith journey and a freedom I experienced as a young boy.

Dr. King has always been one of my heroes which may seem odd.  But it’s true.

When I was born on July 9, 1955, my father was a Baptist pastor in Selma, AL.

A few months later on Thursday, December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to white people on a city bus in Montgomery, AL, which was a local law at the time.  For over a year, Dr. King helped to organize the black community to refuse to ride the buses (the primary paying customers) until December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling took effect saying that the law was unconstitutional.

We moved to Montgomery in 1960 when my father, Lewis Marler, became pastor of Ridgecrest Baptist Church (until 1970) on a street that is now named Rosa Parks Blvd, just four miles from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King served as pastor.

These were my “growing up years” of kindergarten through the ninth grade.  They were also growing up times for many adults in Alabama as well as in U.S. history for the civil rights of all people.

My father and mother talked to me about Dr. King’s ministry in kind, compassionate language which was in stark contrast to what I heard in our white community.  I remember deacons in our church who would talk about that “trouble-maker King” as they smoked their cigarettes under the big oak tree after Sunday School.

But I never heard that kind of attitude in our home.  My parents talked about how faith and behavior went together.  What we said and how we treated others, mattered.

For me personally, the Civil Rights movement also became the time that my personal faith journey was changing.

In 1963 I made what Baptists called “a profession of my faith” in church. That is to say, I walked down the aisle after my father preached one Sunday and fell into my daddy’s arms and said, “I want to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”  I was eight years old.

Prior to this action, I talked with my mother the week before about what this decision meant.  She wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing since I was so young.  So, she asked me to talk with my father on Sunday in his office like most children did in our church who were considering this big faith decision.

I remember walking into my father’s office. We sat down in two chairs in front of his desk and he said, “Malcolm, tell me about what you are thinking about doing.”  Of course, my mother had filled him in about our conversation earlier.  As we talked, he asked a few questions.  He concluded by saying, “This is your decision.  You are the only one who can make it.  You will know when it is right for you.  Let’s pray about it together.”  He put his arms around me and prayed that God would lead me throughout all of my life.

On that Sunday, I discovered a new kind of personal freedom in the heart of the Civil Rights movement. My personal freedom was the realization that my personal sins could be forgiven.  I had the realization in my heart that God loved me and would always love me and be with me, no matter what.  It was a beginning.

It would be years later before I realized that “God loves everyone and that we are all equal” was not everyone’s experience who lived in my community, or in the world.

Dr. King’s words in his freedom speech meant something different at the time to this eight year old, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Or was it so different after all?  We are all called to be free.  Free to love, and free to ask for forgiveness when we fall short.

We are called to help others find that freedom.




  1. Mary Bea Sullivan

    I am struck by how loving and inclusive your parents’ faith was. We would all do well to remember that. I am particularly distraught when I hear Christian language used as a way to exclude. For some, the idea of drawing the circle around themselves and those who believe like they do has become so natural that they seem to be unaware they are doing it; or that it would cause pain; or even worse, be contrary to the teachings of Christ. The fact that our new governor chose to speak of only some being his brothers, one hour after his inauguration, at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church of all places, is an example of that exclusionary language. The challenge for me is to embrace and pray for those who share the governor’s beliefs–I have to be wary of drawing him out of my circle. If we follow the example of loving, humble people like Dr. King and your parents, we may just find our way.

  2. Harry Durham

    Thank you for the New Freedom piece. Dr. King is one of my heroes as well. In January of 1963, seven months before Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech,” Clemson College peacefully enrolled the first black student at a public institution in the state of South Carolina. Even though the enrollment was under a federal court order, there was much opposition to it in the legislature and the general population. Some key public figures, notably Clemson president, Dr. R.C. Edwards, S.C. Governor, Fritz Hollings, and Gantt lawyer, Matthew Perry, worked to ensure that this enrollment would proceed smoothly with no disturbances. Much credit also goes to the enrollee, S.C. native, Harvey Gantt, who conducted himself with dignity, pride, and courage. I was working at Clemson College as Radio-TV Editor for Agricultural Information Services and was asked to shoot film of the day’s events for the College’s archives. Unlike the experiences at other southern institutions, Gantt’s enrollment at Clemson occurred with no demonstrations, no disruption, other than a lot of pushing and shoving by reporters trying to get good pictures. It’s a day we still look back on with pride.

  3. Marti Holmes


  4. Malcolm

    Mary Bea, thanks for your comments. Yep, I think the biggest challenge for all of us is when we draw our own circles like the ones we see others do. We do the same as the ones we criticize at times. Ultimately, someone is in and someone is outside when we draw the circles, like you have taught me.

    Thank you for your influence in my daily life. I am better because of who you are and what you model for me.

  5. Malcolm


    Thanks for reminding me of the story at my alma mater at Clemson University and Harvey Gantt.

    It makes me proud to be a part of the legacy the school left for those of us who came later. I love hearing about my friends and extended family, like you, being a part of history that shapes all of us.

    And if the truth be told, we are all living a history that will influence others even today. Sometimes it is clearer than other times when we are experiencing these pivotal moments.

    Much appreciation,

  6. Malcolm


    Thanks for you Amen! May it truly be so.


  7. Charles Kinnaird


    I remember quite well those deacons who smoked cigarettes and talked before and after church – not the church you’re referring to, but that seemed to be a universal trait of Baptist churches in the South. When I was in the 6th grade, I came across a poem by Edwin Markham in a school textbook. I was attracted to it and committed it to memory (it is quite short). It seemed to me to be true, though I haven’t always lived up to the ideal it conveys:


    He drew a circle that shut me out–
    Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took him in!

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