Founded in 1895, the National Baptist Convention (NBC) is the major organization of African American Baptists and the nation’s largest black religious organization in the United States. Martin Luther King’s family was active in the NBC from its founding.
A. D. Williams, King’s grandfather and an early minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church, was present at the NBC’s founding meeting at Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church. Jennie Celeste Williams (see Family History), King’s grandmother, represented Ebenezer at the Woman’s Convention, an NBC auxiliary. After King, Sr., became Ebenezer’s pastor in 1931, he attended most NBC meetings through the 1930s and 1940s. King, Jr., accompanied his father to the September 1945 NBC meeting in Detroit, Michigan, just before his sophomore year at Morehouse College. In 1953 King family friend Sandy Ray was one of six ministers who ran for the NBC presidency, losing to Chicago’s J. H. Jackson.
In 1954, shortly after King, Jr., became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Nannie H. Burroughs, president of the Woman’s Convention Auxiliary, invited him to address the group’s annual meeting. King delivered a sermon on the convention’s theme, “The Vision of a World Made New,” condemning colonialism, imperialism, and segregation as well as the church’s role in buttressing them. King said that the days of such abominations were limited: “So, like John, we can say we see a new heaven and a new earth. The old order of ungodly exploitation and crushing domination is passing away” (Papers 6:183). The following year, King attended the NBC’s annual meeting with his mother and his father, who was serving on the convention’s board of directors.
Following the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, in 1957, King’s relative fame and popularity threatened NBC president Jackson, who feared King might oppose him for president. King, Sr., reassured Jackson: “You can take it from me, M. L. is not going to have one thing to do with it one way or another” (Papers 4:18). However, in an August 1958 letter to O. Clay Maxwell, president of NBC’s National Sunday School and Baptist Training Union (NSSBTU) Congress, King, Sr., revealed his lack of faith in Jackson’s leadership and his intent to “avert a split in our Brotherhood” due to Jackson’s plans to unseat Maxwell and Nannie Burroughs from their NBC positions. “We are gaining friends, new friends, every day,” he advised Maxwell (King, Sr., 30 August 1958). King himself wrote Thomas Kilgore in July 1958, predicting, “I believe in the next few years, we will see a new day and even a new administration" in the NBC (Papers 4:447). Before the annual NBC meeting that year, King, Jr., was elected vice president of the NSSBTU.
Tensions in the NBC continued to rise and came to a head during the 1960 annual meeting, when Gardner Taylor, a King family friend, ran against Jackson for the presidency. Although Taylor and Jackson both claimed victory, the situation was not resolved until the next convention. In the meantime, Jackson spoke out against the tactics used by the freedom riders to protest interstate bus segregation. His counter to King’s position on the importance of direct action protest to the civil rights movement led to his reelection as president at the annual meeting in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1961. During the contentious 1961 convention a Jackson supporter sustained injuries on the convention floor, which caused his death days later. Taylor and L. V. Booth led an NBC walkout that resulted in the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in which King, Jr., participated. Jackson, who continued to serve as NBC president until 1982, accused King of “[masterminding] the invasion of the convention floor Wednesday which resulted in the death of a delegate” (“Dr. King Is Accused”). King telegraphed Jackson demanding a retraction. Jackson dismissed the allegation in a 12 September 1961 letter, and later removed King, Jr., from his office as vice president of the NSSBTU. Jackson was succeeded by T. J. Jemison in 1982.
“Dr. King Is Accused in Baptist Dispute,” New York Times, 10 September 1961.
Introduction, in Papers 4:17–18.
Jackson to King, 12 September 1961, MLKP-MBU.
King to Martin Luther King, Sr., 24 January 1940, in Papers 1:103–104.
King, “The Vision of a World Made New,” 9 September 1954, in Papers 6:181–183.
King, Sr., to Maxwell, 30 August 1958, EBCR.
King to Jackson, 10 September 1961, MLKP-MBU.
King to Kilgore, 7 July 1958, in Papers 4:447.
King to Kilgore, 6 October 1959, in Papers 5:305.